In Effie Gray, John Ruskin wanted to marry a child; he was disappointed when he found himself face-to-face with a grown woman, with sexual needs, agency, and feelings. It’s an interesting reversal. We expect to watch Effie be exploited, but the problem is that she’s a woman and not that she’s an ingenue.
Effie Gray begins like a fairy tale, before morphing into something richer, more complex, more feminist. But I’d expect nothing less of a film written by Emma Thompson. And as the story morphs, so too, does the film’s aesthetic. It opens on a backlit, nineteen-year-old Effie (Dakota Fanning with a perfect English accent), about to say her nuptials, walking in the afternoon light in a lush garden at the centre of the frame, slowly moving toward the camera, as she dreamily recounts her backstory in voice-over.
She grew up in a poor but kind family in Scotland. When she was twelve, she met the reputed arts writer John Ruskin (Greg Wise, devoid of all Willoughby swagger), who fell in love with her, but did the honorable thing and waited for her to grow up before they wedded. He was rich and kind to her, but he had a wicked family. The stage for the twisted fairy tale is set: a child bride lost in a twisted marriage.
When Effie arrives at her new home, something isn’t right. John lives with his helicopter parents; his father (David Suchet) seems somewhat friendly towards Effie while his mother (Julie Walters) feels immediately threatened. Even when John was at university, we discover, his mother took rooms nearby, and they saw each other every day: she’s suffocating. His parents smile and welcome her, reminding her that she’ll never go hungry again, but nobody seems particularly enthusiastic to have her.
On their wedding night, when Effie disrobes for her husband, he just stares blankly, before rejecting her, leaving her feeling ashamed and confused. The next day, she discovers her presence is entirely extraneous. She wants to help her husband with his work, but he would prefer that she be scarce. She offers to help his mother with her gardening, but she wants no interference. Effie suddenly finds herself a married woman unable to perform any of the duties of a wife, domestic or sexual.
The first questions that come to mind are the ones that Effie asks herself: why, then, if her presence is so superfluous, did John marry her, if he has no interest in engaging with her, either in conversation or sexually? And why is he still living with his parents, as if this were normal behaviour? We can put a name to the possibilities that she can only begin to question as suspicious. At first, it seems he might just be a gentleman, trying not to scare her, but his rejection of her proves so traumatic, and he’s otherwise so unaffectionate and inattentive that there’s something else going on. It could be that he’s asexual, but we hear and see him masturbating while in bed with her, facing in the opposite direction. Is he just gay?
These aren’t the right questions, though, because the film has never been about him. The film is about her. Without the shackles of domestic duty and responsibility, you might think Effie would find her emancipation: she has wealth, security, and the luxury of time. But for an intelligent woman with an active mind, what she needs is employment and purpose. At one point, she is so bored that she rips a button off John’s shirt so that she can repair it, only to be foiled, because they have servants who do that work — it’s considered beneath her, and she’s forbidden from doing the mending. Her boredom starts to defeat her, sending her into depression. Her mother-in-law sees this as an opportunity to feed her a special cure, which also seems to be causing her hair to fall out. Effie is smart enough to figure out, eventually, that it’s poison.
I called the film a fairy tale before, and up until this point it follows this structure: a naive girl getting swept up into a new, rich family, where it all goes awry. But Thompson complicates the narrative in two interesting ways. First, by inserting herself into the story, as Lady Eastlake (she’s terrific), the middle-aged wife of a powerful aristocrat who takes an interest in Effie at a dinner party, and becomes her only friend. And second, by sending Effie off to Venice with her husband — finally free of his overbearing parents — where he finally reveals what his problem is, when describing a work of art, but clearly talking about his wife, who’s been spending her evenings at the parties he refuses to accompany her to: “Once she was a virgin, but now she’s a harlot, addicted to pleasure.”
He wanted to marry a child; he was disappointed when he found himself face-to-face with a grown woman, with sexual needs, agency, and feelings. It’s an interesting reversal. We expect to watch Effie be exploited, but the problem is that she’s a woman and not that she’s an ingenue. In Venice, the colours get richer, and the scenes are more often set at night, as Effie spends much of her time at parties, in the company of other men. She’s testing the waters, exploring her sexuality, her pluck, and her intellect, without crossing any lines. It’s a new stage in her life, and it’s as if she’s entered another film. It’s also after she’s met Lady Eastlake, her only confidante and friend. But she’s also getting sicker and sicker, her hair is falling out, her fatigue is getting worse, and the bald patches are getting harder and harder to hide.
The last act of the film is both the most brutal and the one that offers the most hope. Under the doctor’s orders, Effie and John head to Scotland for her health, and John brings with him a student and painter as his companion, Everett (Tom Sturridge). After weeks together, the three of them in close quarters, under the grey skies of the Scottish wilderness, Everett can’t help but notice John’s casual cruelty and indifference to Effie. He also can’t help but fall for this kind, strong woman who perseveres through it all. The rolling hills provide the perfect backdrop for this new chapter of both blooming romance and imminent danger: can Effie ever escape her husband if she takes this flirtation too far?
There’s been a tendency lately to tell period stories about 21st century heroines who have been planted in 19th century narratives. The Fanny Price of Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park was unconvincing as a woman of her time, but she is certainly a compelling woman of our time, that we could root for in a loose adaptation of Austen’s story. Anne Hathaway’s Jane Austen in Becoming Jane has no sense of 19th century decorum, even though it was a constant topic of conversation: she acts with the abandon of a 21st century woman. Even the titular character in Amma Asante’s often excellent Belle often behaves with the audacity of someone who has been educated in our century and sent back in time to go through the motions of the story. It takes you out of the story because you’re not really watching a period piece that deals with the issues of the time; you’re watching a time travel story with 19th century costumes.
Effie Gray is different. She is often infuriatingly obedient and deferent to her husband when we know that she is too good for him and too smart. We long for her to kiss the man she desires, for her to get some affection and even carnal knowledge, even if we also know it could be her undoing. She follows the rules to the tee, even if she’s clever about finding ways to bend them. She is very much a woman of her time. That’s part of why she is so trapped and her story is so tragic. But it’s also why her story is so moving and empowering. Despite the constrictions of the time, despite her lack of education, and despite the fact that she can’t put a name to the things that her husband is doing or the cruelty she’s experiencing, she survives, and she even tries to find a way to thrive.