A sumptuously shot, intelligently-scripted drama about the turmoil in the Victorian art world resulting from the ill-matched marriage of critic and artist John Ruskin and the much younger, beautiful Effie Gray.
The Tender Trap by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed in sumptuous pre-Raphaelite colours, Effie Gray is a film about art and sex – with no sex and, until the promise of its final act, little love. Emma Thompson’s first solo original screenplay has put an almost contemporary feminist spin on the true story of the ill-fated marriage of influential Victorian art critic and artist John Ruskin and beautiful, teenage Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends.
As Effie, Dakota Fanning has perfect pre-Raphaelite features. The slightest flicker of her eyes reveals her emotions. She is first presented as a fairy tale princess in a walled garden, waiting for her prince. Fairy tales, or the lack of their happy ending, is a recurring theme. Unfortunately her mismatched ‘prince’ is family friend John Ruskin, played by Thompson’s husband Greg Wise, looking perhaps a little too mature for the part. After subtle hints in flashback of possible grooming, he marries her and whisks her back to London to live with him and his dominating parents (Julie Walters as the possessive mother-in-law from hell and conformist pater familias David Suchet) in their oppressive Denmark Hill mansion.
The fact that on their wedding night Ruskin found something about Effie so ‘disgusting’ that he was never able to consummate their marriage has intrigued people for years, and has given rise to numerous novels and a stage play. Was it emotional immaturity or hypocrisy? Despite his mantra that artists should paint what they see, was he unable to cope with the reality of a woman who did not resemble classical statues and paintings? The reason is never discussed and the couple became progressively estranged.
We see Effie’s claustrophobic marriage close round her like a trap and, as her misery makes her ill, we wonder how she will escape from her prison. Ruskin goes out of his way to push Effie in the path of potential lovers, perhaps to make her seem the guilty party. First, she has to socialise alone whilst on a trip to Venice. Then, crucially, he asks his protegé, young artist John Everett Millais (a vibrant Tom Sturridge) to accompany them to Scotland to paint his portrait, where he deliberately leaves them alone together in a remote cottage. Millais is everything Ruskin is not – young, handsome, vital, empathetic, warm, human and moved by Effie’s obvious plight. Inevitably, the two young people fall in love.
The Effie Emma Thompson creates is lively and sociable, in contrast to Ruskin’s self-indulgent and cerebral self-absorption his parents encourage. Her love of life is almost crushed by the restricted life imposed on her but she finds the inner strength not just to endure a miserable marriage out of a sense of duty, but, after meeing Millais, as Emma Thompson writes it, to methodically plan her escape from it. She’s aided in this by Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson in a juicy role she has written for herself), wife of the president of the Royal Academy, Effie’s sympathetic confidante and rescuer, the only person who is able to understand how unhappy she is.
The film’s dark and heavy, draped Victorian interiors alternate with glorious Victorian landscapes with steam trains and carriages, rain-soaked Scottish highlands and lochs. There is a stunning interlude around the canals of Venice, and recurrent images from pre-Raphaelite works such as Millais’ famous painting of the dying Ophelia, a warning of what could have befallen Effie. Dakota Fanning gives a star central performance which carries the film, and it is peopled with celebrated British actors of different generations – in addition to those above, James Fox as Lord Eastlake, Russell Tovey as George, the Ruskins’ manservant, Sir Derek Jacobi as Effie’s life-saving lawyer and Robbie Coltrane as a no-nonsense doctor. There’s also a cameo from Claudia Cardinale as a veteran Venetian Contessa. It’s unobtrusively directed by Richard Laxton, known for many TV series and features, though as the screenplay is detailed the pacing can seem slow at times.
There’s an interesting small crossover with Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner, on release on 31st October. Ruskin’s parents present Effie with a painting by Turner as a wedding gift. In Mr Turner, we see Ruskin and his father in Turner’s studio perusing before purchase what is most likely the same work.
Effie Gray is released on 10th October 2014 in the UK