Produced by Sovereign Films
Directed by Richard Laxton
Screenplay by Emma Thompson
Distributed by Adopt Films
The only reason for making a movie centered on Euphemia Gray (Dakota Fanning) is sex. Or, rather its absence.
This story of Effie, the first and only wife of the magisterially influential Victorian art critic and theorist John Ruskin (Greg Wise), comes to its point almost immediately by beginning with the Ruskins’ wedding night—a sad or laughable event, according to one’s prejudices. Anyone at all acquainted with Ruskin knows or thinks he knows what happened. When Effie disrobed at their bedside, Ruskin took one look and left the room in haste, not to return that evening. The standard account is that he was shocked to see his 19-year-old bride sporting pubic hair. At 29, the author of Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture had only an aesthetic acquaintance with nude women by way of painting and statuary, in which they appeared remarkably hairless. (Of course, there are several painters, to say nothing of photographers, who have since remedied this omission. It’s the rare sculptor, however, who has solved this hirsute difficulty.)
For the next six years Ruskin lived a celibate life with Effie, until the girl could stand it no longer. Effie had herself medically examined and legally declared a virgin so that she could free herself from this odd man. She would later marry another John, John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), a Pre-Raphaelite painter whose career Ruskin had strongly promoted. In fact, his regard for Millais, improbably enough, laid the groundwork for Effie’s marital maneuver. So highly did Ruskin think of Millais that he invited the younger man to accompany him and Effie to Scotland in 1853 so Millais could paint his portrait in what he thought would be a suitably rustic setting. While the three shared a tiny cottage, Effie and Millais began a chaste romance. They did so curiously enough with Ruskin’s encouragement, whether witting or not. (Some have uncovered evidence that suggests Ruskin was as intent on freeing himself from Effie as she was from him and was setting up a situation that would provide him evidence for annulment. If so, Effie beat him to the punch.)
Certainly, Ruskin’s treatment of Effie was hard on the girl, but Emma Thompson’s script seems to make this the be-all and end-all of the case. Ruskin is made out to be a wretchedly bloodless Victorian so shut up in his chilly soul that he never once took Effie’s feelings into account. But we don’t know this. Further, we don’t know with any certainty what prevented him from consummating his marriage in the first place. Was it pubic hair? One biographer thinks it might have been armpit hair; another, menstrual blood; still another, the young woman’s odor. Or is the secret revealed in a love letter Ruskin wrote to Effie during their courtship, in which he compares her rather unpromisingly to glacial fields?
You are like the bright—soft—swelling—lovely fields of a high glacier covered with fresh morning snow—which is heavenly to the eye—and soft and winning on the foot—but beneath there are winding clefts and dark places in its cold—cold ice—wherein men fall, and rise not again.
You would think young Effie would have taken these words to heart and run from her beau as fast as her Victorian skirts would allow.
Despite vigorously urging artists to depict nature as it actually is rather than fashion it according to the idealizing conventions of earlier times, Ruskin seems to have been exceedingly fastidious in his personal life, and the dark physicality of sex just didn’t comport with his notion of beauty. This was likely the result of his dauntingly doting parents, played with wonderful understatement by Julie Walters and David Suchet in roles that would have tempted other actors to make monsters of the pair. Not here: They’re just ridiculously besotted with their only child. This was especially true of his mother, who had moved from London to Oxford to be near her son during his student days and was still seeing to his bath when he brought Effie into their family home. Mustn’t let the world’s filth contaminate her precious one. Today’s helicopter parents have nothing on the elder Ruskins.
Director Richard Laxton has made a beautiful film and drawn excellent performances from his players, but something is missing. Call it a reasonable perspective. Why dramatize Effie’s disappointment unless you’re going to give it a meaningful context? Yes, the young woman suffered an unhappy alliance for six years, but many, many other women (and let’s not forget men) have suffered in unhappy marriages. What’s more, Effie’s subsequent marriage to Millais was very successful, indeed. She saw to it that Millais traded in his artistically esteemed Pre-Raphaelite foolery and took up extremely profitable portraiture of the wealthy. Some have even speculated that it was the Ruskin scandal that advanced his career. It certainly increased his notoriety, which was fortunate: He had to support the eight children Effie graciously visited upon him. She must have been compensating for those years of enforced celibacy.
So coming back to Effie’s story—what’s important about it? To put it bluntly, it’s Ruskin. Without him, would anyone remember her? Yet playing the part, Greg Wise makes Ruskin seem nothing more than a supercilious drip. While in Venice to research his next book, he leaves Effie on her own to strike up friendships with young men whose interest in her goes considerably beyond cordiality. Two go so far as to engage in a fatal duel for her attention. Meanwhile, when not on aesthetic excursions in the city, Ruskin stays in their hotel room, writing yet more pages that would become The Stones of Venice, a three-volume study that would change the course of architectural history and instigate the Gothic revival in England. Of this we learn next to nothing. The important thing is that he doesn’t dance or attend parties with Effie. Such a hopeless pedant! Sure, he was enlightening his age about the purpose of art and its relation to developing a healthy culture and society. But so what? He’s just an old bore. Well, actually, not old; he ages from 29 to 34 during the film. Even in the 1850’s this wasn’t considered old. Still, he has no spunk. He deserves to be cast aside.
There’s something historically lopsided here. You feel Ruskin is being given the bum’s rush at the hands of today’s enthusiasm for youth and feminism. If only Thompson and Laxton had portrayed him as a homosexual! Now that would have given Ruskin a chance to win our favor.
A few words about the charming Dakota Fanning are in order here. She plays Effie convincingly, at least according to Thompson’s script. She’s not as beautiful as the real Effie was said to have been and was painted to be. But with her red hair and round gray-blue eyes, she has a decidedly Pre-Raphaelite look that fits nicely with Millais’s interests. She also conveys what one imagines would have been Effie’s innocence, which would not have been the same thing as sexual ignorance. After all, her mother had 14 children, so Effie undoubtedly picked up some knowledge along the way. No, I mean Miss Fanning plays Effie as though she were largely if not entirely unacquainted with feminine guile. When in one scene her younger sister wants to know why she’s marrying Ruskin, she giggles girlishly and tells her delightedly of all the parties and balls to which she expects her future husband will be taking her. Still, her eagerness to enter grander social realms than her father, a Scottish lawyer, had afforded her doesn’t mean she does not earnestly want to be Ruskin’s dutiful wife. It’s just that she finds herself balked both by Ruskin’s coldness and by its likely source, his parents’ suffocating devotion. Trying to make herself useful, she enters the laundry room and tears some buttons from one of Ruskin’s shirts just so she can sew them on again. On coming into the servants’ quarters and seeing what Effie is doing, Ruskin’s mother fairly wrests the shirt from Effie’s hands. Mending it is for servants, she sternly rebukes the girl. Fanning’s large eyes become touchingly plaintive, but to no avail.
Some critics have faulted Fanning’s performance. They think she makes Effie seem cluelessly pathetic. But this only reveals their contemporary prejudice that dictates women always and everywhere be portrayed as staunchly independent and athletically accomplished. Thompson’s point is that Effie was forlornly bewildered, at least until the final act when she finds the moral strength to stand up for herself. I found Fanning quite believable, not to mention lovely. Now whether this reflects the real Effie accurately, I can’t say, and it seems no one else can either, even those who have made a cause célèbre of the lady’s tribulation.
There have been many tellings of Effie’s story in books, plays, radio dramas, and films, including a 1912 silent suspiciously entitled The Love of John Ruskin. I recall in the 1970’s her story had become a feminist anthem: She was the abused—or unused—woman who had refused to sit still in a man’s world. Well, yes, there’s that, but does it have to come at the expense of heaping such contumely on poor old Ruskin? After all, he was also ensnared in his age’s assumptions and his family’s middle-class prejudices, which included a benightedly exaggerated notion of feminine innocence that all too often had the effect of wet-blanketing sexual understanding.
No question about it: Ruskin wasn’t the life of the party and lacked what used to be called animal spirits. Still, he was Ruskin. When other critics were either oblivious or antagonistic to them, his championing made possible the careers of the revolutionary artists of his time, including Millais and J.M.W. Turner. His writing helped people see that there is a vital relationship between artistic beauty and social vitality. So he wasn’t a partygoer and, with respect to sexual indulgence, let his side down. A shame, certainly, but someone has to do culture’s heavy lifting.
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