Famous Victorian art critic and advocate of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, John Ruskin, is a fascinating figure, not least because of his preoccupation with childhood and children. This film concentrates on Ruskin’s marriage to Euphemia Gray, a nineteen-year-old virgin, with no prospects other than the safe haven of prosperity within this new alliance. Emma Thompson, screenwriter for Sense and Sensibility, penned the script and features as Lady Eastlake, wife of the gallery director (which Ruskin frequently haunts in sight of his pre-Raphaelite protégée, John Everett Millais), and Thompson’s husband Greg Wise plays Ruskin to Dakota Fanning’s Effie.
The real crux of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie was that it was a non-event, as empty and unfinalised as a blank canvas. In other words, the marriage was never consummated. Ruskin claimed he had a special regard for children – perhaps this is one of the reasons he adored Millais’s paintings, as they often heavily featured this sheltered ideal of infancy – and married a beautiful child. Fanning is evidently a non-threatening spectre of a woman. She has a particularly languid, ghoulish countenance which was so fashionable in the Victorian age. The somnolent, heavy eyes and waspish waist, the girlish hands, the muted whisper in conversation – these features were naturally held with high regard as they reveal a kind of native subservience and retiring grace that wouldn’t disturb the ‘natural’ order of conjugal relations. A sexualised wife was a rotten thing and plagued this Victorian sensibility, undermining the husband’s virility by assuming her own in his place. There wasn’t room for two sexualised counterparts in the bedroom.
Fanning is girlish in every sense from the beginning of the film. It is easy to imagine why she was picked for the part as, in keeping with Ruskin’s dread of womanhood, her face has a softness to it as opposed to being angular and she lacks shrewdness in her expression, both in terms of eye contact and voice. There is a particular scene in which Ruskin is alone ‘for the first time’ with Effie, newly married, on board a train for London. She tells him this startling fact and, instead of taking advantage of this newly acquired solitude with her, he tells her to close her eyes. “Beautiful” he says when she’s silenced. It is a fitting portrait, in more ways than one, of the kind of still-life Ruskin seeks for his own peace of mind. A silent wife, paralysed from moving or growing into her adult self, a girl who trembles on the threshold between virginity and sexuality. Every cautious step Effie takes toward adulthood, Ruskin quickly admonishes and pretends never happened in order to preserve his asceticism.
A great mind or a disturbed one? Greg Wise plays Ruskin as a solemn, almost insipid middle-aged man. Though Ruskin was actually twenty-nine when he married Effie, the casting of Wise gives the impression that there is a much larger void between them, both in terms of age and emotional maturity. Though the film could never be thought of as having a dark or unsettling tenor, it does begin to have an unpalatable feel once Ruskin and Effie move into his house in London. Ruskin lived with his parents, or perhaps it is more fitting to say that his parents presided over him, like despotic governors taking anxious care over their prodigal son. Any distraction might upset the balance of his mind. Julie Walters is particularly strong as Mrs Ruskin, a brittle matriarch, chasing Effie out of rooms as though she has wandered out of the nursery by accident. Fanning is bereft without occupation, the usual story which haunts the Victorian middle-class, and traipses around the garden realising she might have made a terrible error. Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Effie is the essence of the drained and listless female without means of chasing ennui away.
In the bedroom, the scene of sheer panic toward sexuality could have been captured more solidly. I felt that these parts were brushed over a little, perhaps in order to transfer most of the marital tension over to family-friendly grounds for the audience. Though Effie Gray should not in any way be a sexualised film, this narrative is, in essence, one of sex and that shouldn’t be ignored or displaced. Effie’s own sexuality could have been explored, perhaps with greater depth, when she is alone to herself. This is a five year span in which a young woman experiences not only an absence of encouragement from her husband, but revulsion in its place toward her physical body. Effie herself said “[Ruskin] 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.” Was she ever violent in this time, or would that be playing to the preconceived terror of female hysteria? This was a common diagnosis which doctors attributed towards fragile women who were prone to fits and lascivious outbursts, often thought to be the effects of menstruation.
I would have liked to have seen this film with more of a darker edge to it regarding these extraordinary reactions toward female corporeality. The horror of the female body is the unspoken cause behind Ruskin’s impotence. It is ironic that Ruskin so clearly praises the work of his protégée Millais, played by an equally solemn-faced Tom Sturridge, for its absolute truth and naturalism yet he prefers to preserve a sharp divide between himself and the realism of the human form. Desperate Romantics (2009) was a serial adaptation on the BBC which followed the Pre-Raphaelite painters in a hubristic pursuit of sex, notoriety and artistic realism. The relationship between Ruskin (Tom Hollander) and Effie (Zoe Tapper) is a radical alternative to this po-faced production, mainly because of the bawdy humour of the Pre-Raphaelites in their own conquests. It might have been farcical, but I enjoyed watching Tapper’s more energetic Effie unravelling at the seams while Hollander cringes every time she bares her breasts in his face. It certainly lacks the restraint and subtlety of Effie Gray, yet, likewise, there is also a real element of visceral despair that is lacking in the film.