Effie Gray opens with the telling of a fairy tale – not a particularly happy one, as it’s rooted in death, but still a fairy tale – that sets the stage for Richard Laxton’s laconic, lush, somewhat misguided, and occasionally boring look inside the bizarre and twisted marriage of Gray (Dakota Fanning) and John Ruskin (Greg Wise). That slim prologue is an odd entry point for the film, one that hints at the picture’s real roots while also avoiding making it plain that Effie Gray is based on a true story. In a world where one-off horror films giddily toss up on-screen notes that the material is “based on a true story,” it’s bizarre that Laxton’s film refuses to make its source material – life – clear to its viewers, even by way of something as reasonable and expected as its own “based on a true story” note. Why avoid that?
It might be the film’s biggest mistake. It certainly doesn’t help the film’s muddled timeline, nor its muffled take on a genuinely compelling slice of history.
The story of Effie Gray is a fascinating one, filled with mystery and intrigue and plenty of unanswered questions. It’s also a period-set tale that speaks to Victorian era sensibilities about marriage, sexuality, and divorce. Effie was just a kid when she first met Ruskin – the leading art critic of their time, and one whose contributions to the art of criticism are still felt today – when he visited her family in Scotland. The fairy tale that kicks off the film nods to that, as the Gray family home was the site of Ruskin’s grandfather’s suicide (romantic, right?), an event that weirdly bonded the Ruskins and the Grays forever. Ruskin took an interest in Effie long before she was of marrying age, and the film opens with the pair finally making their – apparently, endorsed by both the Ruskins and the Grays – union official.
It’s worth noting that Effie was nineteen (very nearly twenty) at the time, while Ruskin was just a decade older than her. That age gap in itself is not particularly compelling, and it’s one that speaks to Ruskin’s desire to establish his career before getting married (get your affairs in order, then get a wife). Yet, in the film, the gap is sizable and jarring. Fanning is twenty-one, Wise is forty-eight, a difference that makes the early meeting of Effie and Ruskin feel very, very unusual in nature (and we’ll get to that later). Without knowing any of the film’s backstory, without realizing this is rooted in truth, the film takes on a decidedly different cast.
Ruskin and Gray’s relationship, although apparently one initially built on affection – young Effie tells her worried sister that she should be pleased she’s marrying Ruskin, because she loves him so much – wasn’t a good one. There’s no truly delicate way to put this, so here it is: Effie Gray is a movie about a man who refuses to have sex with his wife. That’s the story. Why Ruskin never engaged in sexual congress with his wife is a question that has plagued historians and art aficionados for years. Laxton’s film – penned by Emma Thompson, who also stars in it and happens to be married to Wise, which might go a touch further to explain why he was cast in the role – presents a number of possibilities for Ruskin’s behavior, traditional ideas that actually translate quite well to the big screen.
On their first night at home after extended travel from the Gray home and their wedding, Effie nervously enters their bedroom, removes her nightgown, and sends Ruskin all but screaming into the next room. The pair was married for six years, and their marriage was never consummated.
The reasons for Ruskin’s refusal to bed his wife have been debated ever since. Ruskin later wrote that that there was something displeasing about her body, which historians attribute to her pubic hair or perhaps menstrual blood, while others have speculated that Ruskin was worried that she was after him just for his money (okay?) or that he was motived by religion, a desire to not have children, and the belief that the two needed to be more deeply in love before consummating. The film appears to take the stance that Ruskin was so sheltered by his parents that he was unable to function as a man. There’s also something else – that Ruskin could have possibly been a pedophile – an idea oddly pushed by the casting of someone so much older in the part, and a series of flashbacks that show the apparent joy that Ruskin felt with young Effie, a joy he doesn’t show with Effie the woman.
Laxton’s film ends with Effie leaving her husband, bent on annulling their marriage (hey, it was never consummated!) and running off with his protégé, the painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), who showed intense kindness to her during the throes of her awful first marriage. No matter what Ruskin said, there appears to be nothing “wrong” with Effie’s body – she and Millais were deeply in love and she bore him eight children. Ruskin never married again, but he did attempt an engagement, to another young girl, Rose La Touche, who he first met when she was just nine. Despite apparent affection, two did not marry, and Rose died at the age of twenty-seven, with Ruskin apparently going a wee bit mad afterwards.
But the film ends without any indication of what follows, just Effie smiling in a carriage. There is no pre-credits epilogue explaining what happened to the characters, how the annulment played out, if Millais and Effie were happy, where Ruskin went next, none of that. In fact, it ends like a fictional movie, giving little indication that the story we’ve seen – again, a story not billed as true from the very start, unlike most of its historical drama brethren – is a real one. Instead, it’s one that ends the second the credits roll, sending its audience elsewhere to get the real story (that is, if they even know to look, and who could possibly blame them if they didn’t?).