EFFIE GRAY TELLS the story of the eponymous protagonist’s disastrous marriage to John Ruskin, the pre-eminent Victorian essayist and Art critic. Effie (a physically perfect Dakota Fanning, whose resemblance to John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” is uncanny) is the innocent, inexperienced virgin, eager to experience the world and start on her new life as a married woman. Ruskin (Greg Wise) is the experienced one; alas also a virgin, absorbed by a world of art and ideas, but uninterested in experiencing any world beyond that one. She is the one longing to be touched. He remains untouched by longing.
The Ruskin we are introduced to is a man whose understanding of life is framed entirely through the context of art and the intellect. Apart from his Oedipal relationship with his mother, his only experience of women is via the elegant perfection of flawless classical statuary. So when on his marriage night, he is exposed to the actual nudity of a real person (and, it is said, saw female pubic hair for the first time) he is disgusted. Life does not live up to its artistic representation.
This is the beginning of his cold almost sadistic ostracism of Effie. Writer Emma Thompson (yes, that Emma Thompson, who also appears as the wife of the president of the Royal Academy, Lady Eastlake and is herself the author of several Jane Austen screenplays) probes the conundrum of how a man as sensitive to art as Ruskin (who defied popular taste and championed artists such as Turner and Millais) could be so insensitive to his wife and indifferent to life. She suggests that art can be both a lens with which to clarify and view the world, as well as an escape from its disorderly chaos…a distortion of the world it seeks to clarify.
She contrasts Ruskin, the critic, who cannot apply art to life, and for whom art and life exist on separate planes; and Ruskin’s protégé, the artist John Everett Millais who cannot separate life from art and whose art is an illumination of life. The movie integrates this perspective on art with the overriding idea of marriage not as the tender trap, but a potentially dreadful one.
At Ruskin’s age and stature in the society, it made social sense for him to take a bride. A wife could be a definite asset. For Effie, the marriage would be an enormous financial benefit for her less than thriving family. She was the eager child who had looked up to this great man of letters with an innocent’s hero worship (not unlike the relationship between Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon in George Elliot’s “Middlemarch”). He married a child and found himself wed to a woman. She married an aesthete and found there was no man there. Disaster. Theirs was a liaison of pragmatism without passion. And for her, even worse, in the tight incestuous Ruskin family group (mother, father and famous son) she remained ever the unwelcomed outsider, and – living in the home of her in-laws – even lacking the authority of running her own domestic establishment (one of the few places a woman’s authority actually could mean something)
Cut off from her family, ostracized by her bloodless husband and ignored by his parents, Effie is the embodiment of the trapped wife. Her prison is the dark paneled interiors of their grand home and the tight corset of social convention. As with so many other financially insecure, trapped wives, she is dependent on his patronage. There really is no way out.
But it does come. The dark interiors – of the house and of Ruskin’s brooding mind – yield to the bright fields and the light of passion she finds in the chaste but genuine love of Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the man she eventually married. We follow her journey from the put-upon child bride who matures enough to say it’s enough and to summon up the courage to force the annulment of her unconsummated marriage to Ruskin.
Ruskin and Millais form the twin poles of Effie’s constricted universe. The former is an angel of darkness, death and repression. As his unloved bride, she begins to lose her hair, even as she begins to lose her mind. The latter (Millais) is the angel of life, hope and love. He is the light that less her out of Ruskin’s dark. her salvation
Unlike the stiff, lifeless “The Invisible Woman”, another not dissimilar period drama that dwelt with the impossible relationship between Dickens (Ralph Feinnes) and his mistress, Nelly (Felicity Jones), director Richard Laxton really does breathe passion into this tale about the lack of it. So often these period dramas are content to use set decoration and costume accuracy as a prop for ‘felt life’. But Laxton is able to convincingly evoke all the agonizing tension between the heartless, emotionally dead Ruskin and the lost, drowning Effie. And in so doing he immerses us into the kind of claustrophobia Effie – and so many other trapped women – must have experienced. One central image he dwells upon is that of Millais’ “Ophelia”. It’ as though he might be suggesting that this more than merely a beautiful image of a Shakespearean heroine; perhaps more an image of an age…of an entire gender.