The contradictions and morbid tensions between artistry and criticism, male paternalism and women’s rights, truth and lies in high profile celebrity manifest in Emma Thompson’s finely drawn original screenplay of the Victorian era drama Effie Gray. The film touches upon many elements: high society Victorian marriages, hypocritical Victorian mores, classism, sexism and psychological repression/infantilism. The salient vitality of this work is that it focuses on a women’s self-determination and independence at a time when women were chattel, they had few options for gainful employment and their identities were those of their husband’s. Thompson’s screenplay is at heart a profound, layered portrait of Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), the bride of renowned art critic, writer, social and political thinker and naturalist, John Ruskin (Greg Wise). Thompson examines how the illustrious Gray in her own right develops into a maverick; she becomes a fortuitous champion of women’s rights as she attempts to establish her own identity and life apart from Ruskin whom she leaves to marry Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Her scandalous marriage to Millais after she annuls her marriage to Ruskin was considered anathema in Victorian society.
Mindful of current trends in the entertainment, media and art world, Thompson delicately decries the philistine structure of the art world which was ruled by a few celebrated critics, like Ruskin, who influenced artist’s careers determining what was “great” and what was “mediocre.” The feature directed by Richard Laxton is brilliantly acted by Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise, Tom Sturridge, David Suchet, Julie Walters and Sir Derek Jakobi. With the director’s guidance each cast member contributes to subtly evoking Thompson’s iterations of the players of these true to life events amidst the sumptuous gorgeousness of the Victorian high society art world. The glittering cultures of art and forward thinking intellectualism (represented by Emma Thompson as wealthy art patron Lady Eastlake), are contrasted to other cultural elements that wait in the wings poised to rip apart the deadening and discriminatory classist hypocrisies that frayed the social fabric and created misery for women and anyone who walked to a different rhythm.
John Ruskin’s personal life with Gray is controversial and the subject of speculation, a circumstance which Thompson uses to her best advantage in evoking why the relationship between Gray and Ruskin devolved into rancor, bitterness, dissolution and annulment. The film’s art and costume design is stunning and both the interior and exterior scene compositions are cinematically atmospheric enhancing the themes. This abides from the beginning of the film when we see Effie Gray in bluish shadows that match her gown as she walks toward us in slow motion from the home where we are told a suicide occurred. The symbolic implication is that there is a curse which will play out in their marriage (Ruskin’s parents who knew of the suicide refused to attend the wedding), and from the colors, the slow motion, the voice-over narration, we know that this is one of the main tropes of the film: the curse of the fairy-tale marriage. Thus, from this beginning to the conclusion, Andrew Dunn’s thoughtful cinematography, is rich, integrated and profound.
The film begins in flashback with Fanning’s voice describing the curse and the wickedness to come. The exquisitely dressed Effie Gray moves from the house as the mythic, “Once upon a time, ” reverberates. It is a double-pointed allusion to the fairy tale that Ruskin wrote, The King of the Golden River and how Effie Gray is forced to confront the dream of her fairy-tale lifestyle as an increasingly nightmare existence which threatens her inner and outer beauty. Ruskin wrote this most translated of his works and his only work of fiction answering Gray’s 12-years-old challenge to him to write a fairy story for her. Ruskin’s and Gray’s references to this fairy tale appear at various points throughout the film, usually at ironic junctures which foreshadow the how and the why of their growing estrangement and Ruskin’s increasing neglect and insensitivity toward Gray.
The film follows their adult marriage from its beginnings so we understand Gray’s perception of Ruskin as a creative genius and her fairy-tale prince. He is the gatekeeper who allows her entrance into a scintillating world of art, high culture and brilliance. Effie promotes his image of her as his fairy-tale child; she is beautiful, doll-like, submissive, pristine and sexually inviolate. These are the lovely dream versions of the married couple that we wish to hope for but cannot because there is a curse and there are the wicked who will intrude (a situation threatening every marriage). Yet, we do perceive how before other elements enter, Ruskin is the creative prince-genius who offers her “the world,” and Effie is his princess sweetheart, an innocent doll-child.
Enter the snake when they go to live with his parents. With the Ruskins, we watch how the “worm turns” and she is no longer the delightful muse of his life. In the Ruskin’s most luxurious home, environs and lifestyle, the beautiful estate is accursed for Gray; it becomes her prison. Each day evidences another strangling off of her creativity and genius. She is isolated and is deprived of establishing her identity as Effie Ruskin; instead Mrs. Ruskin, John’s mother is the dame of the estate. His parents predominate in all of his behaviors and Effie Gray’s. They control Ruskin and create divisiveness in the marriage, killing all of the tenderness and feeling they once had. They encourage Effie Gray’s invisibility and passivity, until she is literally and figuratively poisoned by the atmosphere and “life” the Ruskins thrust upon her. John Ruskin shares an unusual, sexually overtoned relationship with his mother (she bathes the 41-year-old John in one scene), and is his father’s puppet to be acted upon and forever spurred on to achieve the next exaltation in his ambitions and career. Effie Gray, though useful as the social construct Ruskin’s “wife,” is an encumbrance, a millstone around their necks that they would enjoy rolling into a canyon. Indeed, Effie’s mother-in-law forces her to drink a potion that debilitates Effie, causes a nervous condition and thins her hair which falls out in patches.
David Suchet as Ruskin’s father and Julie Walters as his insidious, autocratic mother give frightening and all too real portrayals. Their interference and fervent religious promptings, Thompson infers, have stultified Ruskin’s sexuality and warped it beyond his capability of being a loving, sensual husband to Gray: Ruskin rejects Gray’s attempts at intimacy and love eschewing them as malevolent, whorish and lewd. Eventually, he vacates their marriage bed. Fanning and Wise are superb in their dynamic interplay. We empathize with both because their behaviors and thoughts for a loving union have been twisted by injustice, discriminatory gender modeling, unreal expectations, repressive sexual mores and the curse of marriage perfection that no one in the culture can achieve because it is infantile. These issue laden tropes existed in Victorian society and persist to this day.
With the director’s guidance, the actors are compelling. Fanning and Wise reveal how with each shattering blow of their former fantasy images Ruskin and Gray become the opposite of the beautiful and sweet prince and princess couple; it is a fascinating and subtle declension into a diminution of humanity and austerity of feeling. Fanning as Gray becomes less attractive; Wise as Ruskin becomes cold and disembodied. Through this measure of development, the parents become more animated as if they are draining the vitality and beauty of the couple like cankerworms scarfing down a host plant.
A series of events including travel away from the estate to Venice, Italy prompt Effie Gray’s stirrings toward autonomy and independence. Distanced from the wicked destroyers, she begins to return to her inner core and envision a new life. After this turning point and with Lady Eastlake’s encouragement (Thompson is the breath of freedom, and her presence is the welcome essence of truth), Gray takes a stand, confronts her state of mind and tortured being. Growing in confidence and freedom inspired by John Everett Millais, she eventually seeks counsel about her horrific marriage and non-existent relationship with the emotionally abusive Ruskin. What happens afterward perhaps will always associate her name and painter John Everett Millais with scandal, though Thompson and the director have provided logical explanations and a conclusion that is satisfying.
For Effie Gray, the reality of a fulfilling marriage with its highs and lows does come true. Millais loves her and saves her from a wicked, repressed and monstrous family. But first, as the film makes crystal clear, Effie Gray has saved herself. As a result she is able to reciprocate love. Thompson’s interpretation of the Ruskins fills in the controversial assumptions about what happened in the marriage between Ruskin and Gray, and offers them up for pity. The Ruskins and their son have been shaped by the Victorian age, its hypocrisy, its pretensions to grandeur and its lies. Only Gray is able to escape the cursed house and wicked forebears. She is scarred in her soul but able to love again.
The depth of the concepts examined in Effie Gray are not easily gleened. But its extremely well crafted artistry is apparent. The director has woven all of the parts (cinematography, acting, screenplay, sound, lighting, art design), into an intriguing portrait of an age and a key celebrity who was influential in codifying social and artistic trends, some of which still impact today (Ruskin’s work was a precursor to environmental conservation). The film pointedly reveals what was absent from Ruskin’s criticism and why he may have fallen out of favor for a time: he vacated his own emotional undercurrents that ran psychologically deep, perhaps too deep for him to view with honesty and integrity. Ruskin was a product of his age emotionally and psychically; he was incapable of transcending it.
Effie Gray, for her part showed courage in realizing her own fairy tale concept of marriage (which women are still encouraged to believe in), was a lie. Facing the truth of her inner misery and fear, she overthrew the destructive mores to live a life she created and could believe in. In a measure, the contribution of her life example and courage, as Thompson and the director reveal, are a powerful and vital example for us today. The film reminds us that to overthrow the cultural bindings on individual freedoms, one must first achieve freedom within though that freedom may be anathema to the culture. But freedom requires courage. And courage like truth transcends time and injustice, especially when love is the foundation which fosters both.