I’ve never much cared for pre-Raphaelite art; I’ve no particular problem with it, it just doesn’t aesthetically appeal. And yet the stories that arose from the movement have always had a bit of drama about them that makes it surprising there haven’t been more films about it. This one, written and produced by Emma Thompson, who also joins a pretty strong cast, takes one of the most infamous episodes in the history of one of its most iconic figures.
John Ruskin (here played by Greg Wise) was an influential art critic and writer who used his immense influence to support the young movement, and largely cemented his place in history in doing so. At the height of his fame, he married the young Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (Dakota Fanning), having already met her years before, when she was aged only twelve. All seemed to be going well, both bride and groom blissfully happy, until the wedding night when Ruskin spurned his new wife, and they would never again seriously consider sexual relations with one another. The traditional story is that Ruskin was somehow repulsed by the reality of his previously idealised bride. The more scurrilous rumour was that he was shocked by her pubic hair, and this film hints at that in a suggestion that he might have been sexually or romantically drawn to inappropriately young girls (if not actually paedophilic, in preferring young children, then being drawn to the innocence of young teens – this seems to be true to the history, as far as I can tell).
There is a lot of attention to the mores and practical realities of 19th Century life, and to how trapped this makes Effie, and this gives the film an authenticity that saves it from being simply a potboiler. In addition, the early depiction of Ruskin, if perhaps not exactly flattering, seems to pay more than lip service to both his talent and his good intentions. As the film progresses, he becomes both less sympathetic and also more of a cartoon – whether this is founded on actual accounts of the man, I do not pretend to know, but it does give the film a slightly less convincing tone, though it may well be justified and Ruskin’s actions have to be seen as both suspect in motivation and cruel in effect.
The film is quiet and reserved, making it quite suffocating and claustrophobic, for me as a viewer as well as for Effie as the heroine, until it opens up near the end as Effie finds sympathy, affection and later love from John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge).