“Once, a beautiful young girl lived in a very cold house in Scotland,” Effie Gray begins, with the retrospective glance of many such stories, as our heroine (Dakota Fanning) strolls toward the camera through an autumnal garden. Tangles of brown and yellow leaves reach in from the edges of the frame, choking the path before her, and indeed the fable she relates, of a young girl plucked from obscurity by an erudite older man, has the feeling of a fantasy long since finished. It’s here that the film, directed by Richard Laxton from a screenplay by Emma Thompson, first challenges our expectations for the period romance, working away from the happy ending. Though it lacks the high rigor of Mike Leigh’s near-contemporaneous Mr. Turner, the enthralling Effie Gray spins the narrative of one of the Victorian art world’s most mysterious marriages into a study of life lived and life merely examined, a fecund fairy tale in reverse.
Gray’s 1848 betrothal to famed English art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), champion of “truth to nature,” occurs in the film’s opening minutes, and the remainder of Effie Gray bears witness to the their long unwinding. Though the narrative pauses to consider the roots of Ruskin’s aversion to sex, including an uncomfortably close relationship with his severe, protective mother, Margaret (Julie Walters), Thompson’s script admirably steers away from Freud and toward the vernacular of the world it inhabits: art. As class conflict, the generational divide, and diverging desires unravel whatever romance might once have existed between Effie and John, it’s his fastidious criticism, as much as her wild enthusiasm, that sets the terms of the conflict. In London, Venice, and the Scottish countryside, Effie Gray applies its verdant energies to a brilliant dissection of the Victorian penchant for decoupling theory from praxis, with the couple in question the foremost exemplar.
As such, Laxton and director of photography Andrew Dunn apply an almost pre-Raphaelite eye to the compositions, slowly severing the connection between Effie and John through a lovely, if sometimes overdetermined, juxtaposition of images. In Effie Gray, symmetry signals the cruel constraint of Victorian society. As the newlyweds arrive at his parent’s estate, for instance, in which Effie will soon suffer her worst indignities, the camera swings around to frame the brick façade as though it were a picture postcard; in Venice, where Ruskin retreats into his work, the endless, uniform arches of the piazzas come to reflect the pressures of perfection. Effie, happiest cajoling her sister from a fort of thick branches on the forest floor, or smiling down on the savage rumples of a Scottish valley, understands intuitively what her husband can only inscribe on the page, which is the notion that “truth to nature” requires one to dive into the sticky physicality of the world, and not simply admire it from afar.
With the exception of Paul Cantelon’s rather adamant score, Effie Gray resists the more obvious titillations of Effie and John’s scandalous relationship in favor of a subtler conceit, examining repression from the end of a painter’s brush, or perhaps a critic’s pen. “In thus retracing its steps, it does not recover its own lost energy,” Ruskin wrote in The Stones of Venice of the city’s architecture. “It revisits the places through which it had passed in the morning light, but it is now with wearied limbs, and under the gloomy shadow of evening.” For all his interest in naturalism, Ruskin’s straitlaced, moralistic criticism of Italian “corruption,” as Effie Gray suggests, reflects a chasteness of spirit that doomed his relationship with Effie long before their wedding night.
Indeed, hidden within the film’s Victorian refinement is a surprisingly muscular act of criticism, one that pits Ruskin’s philosophical idealism and the falseness of fairy stories against Gray’s earthy independence and the messy clutter of real life. After all, it’s Ruskin’s portrait, not Gray’s, that we see painted in the film, as the subject and his artist, Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), endure numb fingers and cold deluges of rain: Framed before a rushing waterfall, beneath a ragged cliff, Ruskin’s in the midst of nature, all right, but in the end it’s still a pose.