Over the course of her career, Emma Thompson has proven herself, irrefutably, to be an intelligent and creative woman, both on and off-screen. With Richard Laxton’s Effie Gray, she once again returns to screenwriting,transforming what might have been another ghastly Victorian costume affair into a historical drama that tugs at the heart. The opening of the film fills the screen with images of the lush Scottish countryside. Euphemia, or Effie (played by Dakota Fanning and a dubious Scottish accent), is explaining to her sister Sophie (Polly Dartford) how much better life will be once she has married John Ruskin (played by Emma Thompson’s real life husband Greg Wise). The statement Effie makes sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Effie’s marriage to Ruskin appears to be encouraged by the wishes of their respective families rather than motivated by any real affection. The film, however, paints an unhealthy relationship between John and his mother Margaret Cox Ruskin (Julie Walters), who continues with her responsibilities as his mother and nurse even after his marriage. She refuses to relinquish him, and for the early sections of the film Effie just sits and watches. Mrs. Ruskin’s coldness towards Effie is only half of the problem; on the night that they return home as newlyweds, John directs a look of disgust at his young wife’s body and walks away. Effie’s relationship with Ruskin is thus shown to be tumultuous from its very beginning, mired as it is in the depths of an Oedipal complex.
After being visited by a physician (Robbie Coltrane) for looking ghostly white, substantial hair loss, and lethargic for Effie, Ruskin brings along a young painter, John Everett Millais (an unrecognisable Tom Sturridge), who sees the mental pain that Effie is in and becomes her companion on the trip to the Scottish Highlands. Ruskin decides to depart for a couple of days, and leaves Effie and the young artist alone, seemingly unconcerned that his wife may be seen with an unmarried man. During her husband’s absence, the pair discover a mutual attraction and Effie’s life is irrevocably changed. However, to give out any more information would ruin the films plot.
This is a Victorian period piece; it is thus important for the viewer to recognize certain aspects such as clothing, mannerisms and the general attitudes of the characters. The camera work replicates the sobriety of the costumes, with long stills of the high collars and starched primness of men’s and women’s clothes when in London. In contrast, the trip up to the Scottish Highlands offers a much more relaxed atmosphere. The rolling mountains and tranquil lochs also seemed to act as a metaphor for what is going on in Effie’s life. The weather also seems to mirror the characters’ moods so during the most intense moments between the characters, it rains. For example, painting Ruskin’s portrait by a beautiful waterfall, Millais is filled with rage and anger at Ruskin’s treatment of Effie. The heavier the rain, the tenser Millais becomes.
In Effie Gray Emma Thompson has delivered a story of female (and male) empowerment. The film also helps us all see how we can sometimes take love and life all too much for granted.