One of my last reviews was for a film called Serena, which focused on a prosperous couple falling victim to jealousy and madness. That film didn’t give the viewer anything to get behind, nothing to root for or hold on to emotionally; it held its audience at a distance and gave no chances to really look into the souls of the lead characters. Effie Gray is the polar opposite of Serena, but in an odd way, its twin; its focus is on another couple falling victim to a madness of a different kind, but we’re invited into their world and made to care deeply about the titular character and the cold circumstances surrounding her.
The film makes us witnesses to a whirlwind dramatization of the six-year marriage between art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and Euphemia “Effie” Gray (Dakota Fanning), married in 1848 with no children resulting in their union. The reason: the marriage was never consummated. Instead, we see Effie, a hopeful, intelligent young woman, married to an older man who almost seems disgusted by her naked form and who treats her as a thing, not a person. Of course, it doesn’t help that he still lives with his overbearing mother (Julie Walters) and figuratively short-sighted father (David Suchet), the former evidently enjoying her petty torments she inflicts on Effie.
In this day and age, we’re probably be screaming at Effie to ditch the whole lot of them immediately, but there’s a thick streak of stick-to-itiveness running strongly through her. Some historians have said it’s because she wanted a chance at the Ruskin family fortune, while others said she stayed out of duty. We see Ruskin trying to tame her, to make her more like a proper woman of the times, which is to say that they were better seen and not heard. Over the film’s duration, we see Effie’s physical and mental breakdown wrought upon her by the Ruskin family, as if all they want to do is extinguish the light that burns so brightly in her soul.
How Effie manages to keep her wits about her during her trying times can only be chalked up to a refusal to be broken. She maintains her free-spirited, adventurous self in the face of societal pressure, forced gender roles, her mother-in-law’s attempted chemical interference (which results in hair loss), and romantic gestures from those who fall in love with her bright spark. Eventually finding a kindred spirit in artist John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), Effie gathers the strength to rise above her tormentors and be the person she wants to be.
The screenplay, by Emma Thompson (who also guests in the film as prominent art critic Lady Elizabeth Eastlake), paints Ruskin as a man so driven by his passion for art and his own ego that he fails to see anyone but his parents and himself as human beings. He’s coddled like a baby by his mother, who coos over the slightest hint of him being ill or tired, yet scolds Effie for being truly sick and bedridden during a visit from Lady Eastlake and her husband. Lady Eastlake even notices that Effie’s merely a shadow of the delightful girl she’d met merely months before at a dinner celebrating Millais’ art finding a home at the Royal Academy of Arts. To me, Ruskin feels like one of those modern-day folks who live behind computers and have trouble interacting with real people; all he knows is art, and if anything or anyone doesn’t fit into his idea of beauty or desire, they are treated with disdain, with him going the extra mile to make sure they know that they’re beneath him.
Wise’s performance goes a long way toward making the audience hate him, and it’s a credit to him that we do. His stuffy, nose-in-the-air interpretation of John Ruskin is the perfect contrast to Fanning’s gentle Effie, who’s wise in the ways of both the world and the soul. They’re a perfect mix of oil and water – yes, I know they don’t blend without the act of emulsion, but that emulsion never happens; in that, they’re wonderful as villain and hero. Effie’s transformation from child-like bride to liberated woman is something worth seeing, as Fanning plays her with equal parts ethereal grace and abject horror at what’s being done to her.
I kind of hesitate to call Effie Gray magical, and yet it is, with its strong theme of female empowerment sharing a stage with brilliant performances and a crackling script. Special mention must also be made of the costumes and set design; I believe “sumptuous” is the only word that could describe the visual feast on display here. Andrew Dunn’s photography captures all of this well, employing various lighting schemes and camera movements to further evoke our gut response to this wonderful story of a woman who dared to live her life amid a historically stifling culture.