Effie Gray was released in the UK in late 2014, and I was initially excited about: it tells the story of Pre-Raphaelite art critic John Ruskin and his marriage to a much younger woman who he never shagged and who consequently divorced him. I mean, I created the tag “pubic hair trauma” just for my preview! And then I heard that there was some kind of legal battle (apparently some people claimed that Emma Thompson plagiarized their Effie Gray biopic scripts — Thompson was cleared in court), and then Thompson refused to promote the film because of this, and then it fell off my radar. But when I put together my round-up of possible Oscar contenders, I decided to get off my duff and watch it — preparing myself for the possibility of a dry, depressing look at the mid-Victorian era.
I’m here to tell you, that despite said pubic hair trauma, and overbearing parents, and fucked-up husbands who need to reconsider their sideburns, this was a really great movie! No, it’s not a happy fiesta of shagging. But because it focuses on the most interesting character in the story — Effie herself — it manages to not be the dour, depressing Patriarchy-Fest that I was worried it would be.
Effie Gray‘s Actors and Story
Between this and The Runaways (2010), Dakota Fanning has proved herself to be a very talented actress. As Ruskin gets more and more asshole-ish as the movie progresses, she spends a decent amount of time being silent and withdrawn. But she still manages to bring a lot of emotional nuance to this portion, and you can see that she hasn’t lost her spirit underneath her closed exterior. And I was very thankful that she had a strong handle on an English accent.
Fanning pretty much makes the movie, but the supporting cast is quite good as well. Greg Wise gave a great performance as John Ruskin. I wished we could have learned more about what fucked-up psychological issues he had, and I hope the real Ruskin suffered severely in real life, but of course that’s the point — he’s totally closed off to Effie, and it shows. Sadly, he wasn’t as foxy as usual with those mid-Victorian sideburns — totally historically accurate, totally not my cup of tea.
Julie Walters was also great as Ruskin’s mother (a large part of his problems, according to this film). She mixes overly concerned and doting mother with territorial shrew without going overboard on either side.
Finally, Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais managed to be both pretty and intelligent, which is a nice combination and what was needed for the role.
Effie Gray‘s Costumes
The film begins in 1848 with the marriage of Gray and Ruskin in the rural area in which she lives. Unfortunately we only get a glimpse of her wedding gown:
After that it’s “innocent country bumpkin goes to the big city” as the two are immediately put into a coach for Ruskin’s house in London:
Her initial costumes are very sweet and little girl-ish:
Things start to change as the reality of her marriage and new life sink in. She wears this to a fancy dinner out with her husband (who ignores her) and various Pre-Raphaelites who discuss Important Things. When I saw photos of this before the movie, I was questioning the longish lace sleeves — but it really worked for me, both for being dramatic and for showing Effie’s darkening world — in the film:
Effie can’t find her place in Ruskin’s life (she tries to help him with his work, he tells her she’s in the way; she tries to help his mother with the household, she rebuffs him), but luckily the two go to Venice. There, Effie learns about fun and blossoms a bit:
Now obviously this is before hoopskirts (which came into fashion in the late 1850s), but I this outfit (below) felt almost late 1870s in silhouette — the hat doesn’t help. Note how her wardrobe is brightening up. Costume designer Myers said, “She’d been in a cage—which is what I wanted the earlier clothes to feel like—and then she gets to Italy and finds out life isn’t like that. That’s what I wanted the clothes to say” (A New Shade of Gray).
There was a great scene where Effie is out in the wee hours of the morning, having left a ball or party with her new Italian friends (Ruskin stays home writing/pouting for most of their time in Venice). There’s a beautiful aerial shot of Effie spinning in the middle of the courtyard, framed right on top of a motif in the tiles:
Her skirt has vertical ribbons that are stitched down to about 3/4 of the skirt length. It makes for a beautiful shot and shows Effie spinning free.
But back in London, things don’t improve. Eventually, Ruskin takes Effie to her native Scotland for her health, bringing Millais along as Millais has been commissioned to paint Ruskin’s portrait. By this point, Effie has pretty much shut down … but this is the period in which she gets to know Millais. I was shocked to find that I actually really LIKED Effie’s country wardrobe. She’s in lots of pretty scarves and gloves and shawls, but the colors are really pretty and show her inner complexity. And it’s just pretty!
Finally, back in London, Effie is ready to Take Care of Business … and her wardrobe changes to a more put-together, confident style:
Two other characters’ wardrobes worth discussing are Lady Eastlake (the wife of a leading aristocratic patron of the Pre-Raphaelites, played by Emma Thompson) and Ruskin’s mother (played by Julie Walters). I really liked the woven fringe sleeve on Eastlake’s black dinner dress:
And I question whether this pink thing is a Swiss waist (a wide belt worn in the 1860s) or an underbust corset (shudder):
And for Ruskin’s mother, although it was incredibly hard to find ANY shots of her online, I was pleased that they put her into some evening gowns. I would think the tendency for this kind of character (bossy, overbearing) would be to make her look super frumpy, but the costume designer understood that any woman of means is going to have an evening wardrobe, and it helped to show the Ruskins’ wealth.
Finally, I gotta talk about hair (when don’t I?). I was a little worried when Effie kept wearing her hair down at the beginning of the movie. She was 17 when she got married, but nonetheless, if she wasn’t an adult (who would wear their hair up) before that, she certainly would be after. But she pretty quickly transitioned into some lovely, complex arrangements that were clearly showing her own Pre-Raphaelite/artistic leanings. So I let it pass.
And, by mid-way through the movie, she’s keeping those ornate hairstyles but wearing all of her hair up. Which, yes!
And last of all, I need to both praise Lady Eastlake’s hairstyle, which is a KICK-ASS example of a high fashion 1860s hairstyle — the front rolls! The complex and long arrangements in back! — and point out that this is totally an 1860s style. Not late 1840s/early 50s.
Have you seen Effie Gray? What did you think of the Pre-Raphaelite take on mid-Victorian costume?