Credit the sumptuous visuals to director Richard Laxton, but the essence of Effie Gray is in the screenplay by Emma Thompson, who also cast herself in the critical role of mentor. (JLH 4/5)
On April 10, 1848, a man named John Ruskin married a woman named Euphemia Gray [aka Effie] at her family’s home in Perth, Scotland. He had just turned 29 years old, and she was about to turn 20. She was the daughter of family friends and they had known each other for years. At the time there was nothing unusual about this arrangement, in fact, all lovers of Jane Austen’s Emma will think life is imitating art. And that may well be what Effie thought too.
But skip ahead a few years and something extremely unusual has happened: in 1854, the marriage of John Ruskin and Effie Gray was annulled on the grounds of “non-consummation.”
This event became one of the great scandals of Victorian England; gossip was at fever pitch and much ink was spilled analyzing the motivations of the principle players. Even today, over a century later, no one is quite sure what it all meant. Was John Ruskin an aesthete repulsed by his wife’s body? Was John Ruskin a pedophile no longer attracted to a woman already in her 20s? Was John Ruskin a mama’s boy? Was John Ruskin a homosexual? Was John Ruskin impotent for some organic reason?
To her great credit, beloved actress and Oscar-winning screenwriter Emma Thompson doesn’t really care about any of these questions. In her new Effie Gray screenplay, Thompson keeps her eyes fixed on Effie. A young woman who knows very little about her own body and almost nothing about sexual intimacy is faced with a dilemma she never anticipated. How will she cope? Will the weight of it crush her?
The risk here is obvious. Almost everyone likely to see this film will already know the name “John Ruskin.” He was a major presence in last year’s art house darling Mr. Turner, and his current Wikipedia page is twenty pages long (and likely to get even longer once this film is released).
Meanwhile, Effie Gray has become just another historical footnote, and I can already hear my colleagues complaining (as so many of them did when Jane Campion chose to move the Bright Star spotlight from John Keats to his muse Fanny Brawne). Why make a film about Fanny Brawne when you can make a film about John Keats? Why make a film about Effie Gray when you can make a film about John Ruskin? Who cares about these women anyway???
Well obviously I do… and thankfully so does Jane Campion, and so Emma Thompson! (Note that I also cared a lot about Ellen “Nelly” Ternan and I assume screenwriter Abi Morgan did too, but by the time director Ralph Fiennes released his version of The Invisible Woman last year, it had ceased to be Nelly’s story and had become a story about Charles Dickens… as played by–you guessed it–Ralph Fiennes.)
Dakota Fanning does a wonderful job as Effie and watching her mature from high-spirited girl to self-possessed woman on screen is a joy. This is the fourth film I have seen starring Dakota Fanning in the past twelve months alone, and she has been terrific–and astonishingly different–in every one of them. After a highly-successful career as a child star, Dakota Fanning has taken on a series of courageous parts–in films often written &/or directed by women filmmakers–which is rare and much welcomed.
And unlike Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson has written a supporting role for herself (not a lead), which allows her to play the critical role of mentor without overpowering the young actress she is nurturing. Without giving too much away, Effie is able to free herself from a failed marriage because she tells her story to an intelligent, sympathetic, and powerful older woman who helps her take practical steps that no one else would ever dare to think of let alone to suggest.
So enjoy Effie Gray for the sumptuous visuals–locations, sets, costumes, all as good as they should be–but then spend a little time back on Wikipedia learning about Elizabeth Eastlake–the character Thompson plays–who turns out to be even more accomplished in real life than even Thompson is able to fully convey on screen!
BRAVA, Emma Thompson: You’ve done it again 🙂
Top Photo: Dakota Fanning as “Effie Gray.”
Middle Photo: Emma Thompson as “Elizabeth Eastlake” with James Fox as her husband “Sir Charles Eastlake.”
Bottom Photo: Greg Wise (middle) as “John Ruskin” with his formidable parents (played by David Suchet & Julie Walters).
Final Photo (below): Tom Sturridge as “John Everett Millais.”
Photo Credits: David Levinthal © 2015 (Adopt Films)
Please do not dismiss the intensely personal conversations Effie and Elizabeth Eastlake have as “conversations about a man.” They are conversations about Effie’s predicament and how Effie is to extricate herself from a doomed marriage.
Back to the subject of Wikipedia. Given that Wikipedia has a long-acknowledged “woman problem” (there are a disproportionately small number of entries about women on Wikipedia, the entries about women on Wikipedia tend to be much smaller than the entries about men, and a disproportionately low number of people who post on Wikipedia are female), I suppose I should be happy that Effie Gray even has a Wikipedia page… but I’m not.
Readers of Effie Gray’s Wikipedia page (at least as of today = 4/3/15) will be lead to believe that the most important feature of her life was a “Love Triangle,” which Wikipedia helpfully defines as “a romantic relationship involving three people.”
The undisputed facts are these: Effie Gray married John Ruskin in 1848; the Gray/Ruskin marriage was annulled in 1854; Effie Gray–still a virgin at age 27–married John Everett Millais in 1855.
Unlike the Gray/Ruskin marriage, the Gray/Millais marriage was enormously fruitful, and little Millaises multiplied until there were eight. In 1885, Millais (thought to be most commercially successful painter of his time) became the first artist to be honored with a Hereditary Title (making him Sir John Everett Millais and making Effie Lady Millais). In 1896, Millais was elected President of the Royal Academy (which is the position Sir Charles Eastlake held when his wife Elizabeth Eastlake first took Effie Ruskin under her wing). Sir John Everett Millais died in 1886. Lady Euphemia Millais died in 1887. He was buried with the elite at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. She lies buried with her family in Perth (the site anticipated in Millais’s 1859 painting The Vale of Rest).
John Ruskin, on the other hand, continued to live an exemplary professional life, but never remarried and never had any children (either within or outside marriage).
From my point of view, the Gray/Millais relationship would only be part of a “love triangle,” if John Ruskin had intimate feelings for his wife Effie at the time she became involved with Millais. But the undisputed facts of their marital history make this doubtful, and Emma Thompson’s screenplay makes the situation crystal clear. Whatever the cause of his impotence, Ruskin had long tired of Effie’s presence by the time she met Millais. Ruskin barely interacted with her, and he certainly did not “love” her in any romantic way (sexual or otherwise).
Tom Sturridge (who plays Millais) is a warm, sensuous, and charismatic presence on screen, and I for one was delighted by the thought that Effie might find happiness with him when he finally appeared in Act Three. But he certainly didn’t take anything away from Ruskin, in fact the historical evidence suggests that Ruskin deliberately threw them together in hopes that they would fall into a scandalous relationship that would enable him to divorce her.
However Effie and Millais–good Victorians both–were trapped by their circumstances, and it took the brilliant Elizabeth Eastlake to find the solution which lead to their future happiness (not to mention those eight children).
Right now (4/3/15), Elizabeth Eastlake isn’t even mentioned on Effie Gray’s Wikipedia page, but by the time you read this, I hope to have amended the record. And as I do, I will be thanking Emma Thompson for turning this “old scandal” into a Feminist Success Story.
For an excellent overview of the facts of the matter, read Elizabeth Kerri Mahon’s 2009 post on her blog Scandalous Women. Alas, Effie Gray is not included in Mahon’s 2011 book Scandalous Women, but aspiring screenwriters are urged to take a look at all the fascinating women who are included… And hopefully Mahon herself is already at work on volumes two, three, and beyond.
Despite Wikipedia’s current flaws, I have faith in all the women who will no doubt tell more Herstory–on page, stage and screen–in the future!