Sitting in my watch list for quite some time was Effie Gray, a movie directed and written by Emma Thompson. It is based on the true story of a young woman who married John Ruskin, a man eighteen years her senior. Ruskin (played by Greg Wise and also the husband of Emma Thompson) was a famous writer and art critic in the Victorian era who wed in 1848. Effie aka Euphemia (played by Dakota Fanning), uneducated, poor, and from Scotland, married into a family with wealth and social status. How the romance began between the two is hardly touched upon in the movie except to say they met when she was a child. Ruskin waited until she became of age to wed, and Effie blindly married the man suffering from whimsical thoughts of romance.
The movie paints the Victorian era in a rather dark, dull, and stringent environment. Effie is taken by Ruskin to live at his parent’s home, ruled by an over domineering and smothering mother and strict father who have given their lives to see their son’s success. Effie soon learns that she has no purpose as Ruskin’s wife either in or out of bed. The first night they are alone when she anticipates the consummation of her marriage, she bares her nakedness before Ruskin who runs out of the room. His real life account of that moment is stated in his own words:
“It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”
What his actual objection was upon seeing his first naked female are difficult to ascertain. Effie, however, gives this account in her own words:
“He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.”
It led to a five-year marriage that had never been consummated. Ruskin turns into an emotional brute of a man, demeaning her at every turn. The treatment only leads to her despair, loss of hair, constant illness, and overt melancholy until another man enters the scene. Unfortunately, Dakota Fanning plays a rather dull and unemotional woman who you wish would show some emotion rather than the monotone words that come out of her mouth.
John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge, the pretty boy who played in Far From the Maddening Crowd) is an artist who travels to Scotland on holiday with Effie and Ruskin to paint his portrait. The man he admired shows his true colors during the country escape for Effie’s health, and Millais grows to despise Ruskin. Eventually, Effie and Millais form an attachment and fall in love but there is no sexual encounter. It’s rather an unspoken and untouched recognition that they love one another. In the meantime, Effie’s hatred of John intensifies.
Throughout her ordeal, Effie finds a friend in Lady Elizabeth Eastlake with whom she shares the truth regarding their unconsummated marriage. With her help, Effie visits a solicitor, has a doctor confirm her virginity after examination, and files for annulment of the marriage based on impotence. The movie ends with her letting Millais know that she has left Ruskin but asks that he not come to her until she is free. In real life, Effie does eventually marry Millais.
The story, though fascinating, does languish in this film. It’s a slow-moving narrative, which probably only keeps the interest of die-hard period drama fans. As stated earlier, I thought the portrayal of Effie frankly painful, though Wise and Sturridge do an acceptable but not brilliant job of their characters. Costumes and scenery are enjoyable enough to transport you back into the mid-Victorian world of repressed sexuality. On a side note, I enjoyed the soundtrack immensely.
If you are unfamiliar with who John Millais was as an artist, perhaps this picture off to the side of his famous painting of Ophelia will refresh your memory. It’s often used during the movie to express Effie’s unhappiness as if she is drowning in sadness.
Now streaming on Amazon, it’s worth the watch for the fascinating true-life account of Victorian life. It rated low, however, on Rotten Tomatoes and other written critic reviews.
Below is a portrait of the real Effie painted by her husband.