Author: Emma Thompson
Genre: Drama/Romance
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 6

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In Victorian England, a woman struggles to endure a loveless marriage.


In 1840, JOHN RUSKIN (early 30s) asks 11-year-old EFFIE GRAY what she thinks of a painting. The painting confuses her, because the woman portrayed in it is turning into a tree. John explains that she’s a nymph who turns herself into a tree to avoid the untoward advances of a god. A montage shows John and Effie exchange letters for eight years. Effie, now 19, marries John and reluctantly leaves her family behind to move into wealthy John’s large house. She’s introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Ruskin (60s), both of whom are unpleasant and treat Effie poorly. So does ANNA (60s), the maid who will now split her duties between Effie and Mrs. Ruskin. Despite the shabby treatment, Anna is thrilled to live in such a beautiful house, full of lively servants, with a man she truly loves. Mr. Ruskin hangs a new painting of the Grand Canal in Venice, which he bought in celebration of Effie and John’s marriage. That night, John admires Effie in her nightgown, claiming she is perfect. The next morning, Effie wakes up later than the rest of the household, annoying Anna and Mrs. Ruskin. Effie wanders the house, unsure of what she’s supposed to do as a wife. She attempts to help John, who finds her presence annoying and sends her to help Mrs. Ruskin tend her garden. Mrs. Ruskin makes no effort to mask her contempt and sends Effie back into the house. After a few days of feeling useless and receiving hostile treatment, Effie intentionally tears one of John’s shirts so she’ll have reason to sew it back up. Anna insists on taking it herself, but Effie fights and wins. She’s overruled by Mrs. Ruskin, who announces that she did not raise a child to wear darned clothing. Anna takes Effie clothes shopping, willfully allowing Effie to humiliate herself by buying a garish bright-pink dress in contrast to the family’s drab Victorian fashions.

After forcing her to change, John takes Effie to an art exhibition by a painter he’s sponsored, JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS. John acts like the evening is more about his benevolent sponsorship than about Millais’s skills. Effie charms a middle-aged woman, LADY EASTLAKE, to the consternation of the elder Ruskins, who want to make a good impression on the Lady but wish Effie would remain shunned. They’re pleased, though, when Eastlake invites herself over to the Ruskins’ home for dinner. The mistreatment by John and his family causes Effie to lapse into a deep depression. Its peak coincides with the Eastlake dinner, and since the Lady has come specifically to see Effie, Mrs. Ruskin flies into a rage when Effie refuses to leave her room. She forces Anna to dress Effie, and they drag her downstairs. Eastlake immediately recognizes Effie’s illness and tends to her with the sensitivity and compassion of a mother. She takes Effie upstairs, makes her some tea, and sits with her. Upon leaving, Eastlake apologizes to her husband for forcing him to endure an evening with such an unbearable family.

John flies into a rage over Effie’s humiliation of the Ruskin family, which sends Effie into a further spiral. She finds herself barely able to do more than coo that she wants her mother. John sends for Effie’s parents, who arrive with Effie’s younger sisters, SOPHIE (teens), and newborn HORTENSIA. Effie is fascinated by the baby, but John finds them disgusting. Mrs. Ruskin and Mrs. Gray engage in a passive-aggressive battle of wits, culminating in Mrs. Gray finally saying what Effie’s been thinking: that the newlywed couple needs to move out. John, who intended a trip to Venice to research a book anyway, agrees to rent a flat in the Italian city. It does well for Effie’s mood but not the relationship. As John explains it, Effie’s free to pursue her interests, which means she’s not around to distract John from his work. Left to her own devices, Effie is chaperoned by an Italian VISCOUNTESS (50s) and her good-looking son, RAFAEL (30s). Effie enjoys their company, quickly learning Italian and taking in all the local sights and customs. Before long, Rafael is smitten. A few days after an exhilirating night of dancing, Rafael makes a rather improper pass, placing Effie’s hand on his bulging crotch. Effie’s shocked and terrified; she runs away. Rafael pursues, but Effie makes it home. John is distracted and apathetic. Effie makes no mention of the encounter with Rafael. She goes into the bedroom and discovers that tree bark is growing from her hand.

An unspecified time later, Effie and John are back in England. Effie tries to engage John in sexual activity, but John has no interest. Citing her depression and apparent madness, Anna and Mrs. Ruskin attempt to force Effie to take pills. Effie fights them, further enraging Mrs. Ruskin, who begins to insist that Effie wants to kill her. The stress and depression causes Effie’s hair to begin falling out in patches. She learns to style her hair to conceal it. John brings in a doctor to sedate Effie. John gripes about Effie’s “neverending succession of minor ailments” and noting her hysterical nymph hallucination. The doctor suggests fresh air, exercise, and an environment Effie finds more suitable. He suggests Scotland, Effie’s homeland. John has no interest in doing this, but the doctor is very insistent. Mrs. Ruskin attempts to talk John out of it, noting that he should not have to uproot his life for her. Mr. Ruskin counters that John will not be able to get any work done until Effie’s in a less distracting mental state. John and Effie go off to rural Scotland. John invites Millais along, because he’s commissioned a portrait and feels they can use this time to work on it.

Shortly after arriving, Effie receives word that her mother lost another child. Millais finds her weeping and consoles her. Later, he’s shocked to find John neither knows nor cares about Mrs. Gray’s miscarriage. John’s hostile attitude regarding Mrs. Gray’s breeding habits shocks Millais. Another day, John and Millais play a friendly indoor badminton game while Effie watches. It grows steadily more competitive, until John (seemingly intentionally) shoves Effie to the floor in order to make a difficult volley. Millais is shocked that John doesn’t check to see if he’s hurt Effie. Millais checks on her himself, but Effie apologizes, saying she got in the way. This disturbs Millais. On a rainy day, Millais’s arthritis causes him to stop. John, who’s sitting for the portrait outside, carefully wraps the canvas and takes it back to the house, leaving Millais to deal with the rest of the supplies and the makeshift tent he’s arranged for the sitting. Because of the excess baggage, Millais ends up slipping and banging his nose. John’s apathetic, but Effie rushes to help Millais.

John leaves for a lecture in Edinburgh, disregarding propriety and allowing Millais and Effie to stay together. With John out of the way, Millais and Effie are able to get closer. He’s a sweet, attentive man, but he makes a minor faux pas when he mentions John told him Effie didn’t want children. This is news to Effie, and it shocks and chills her. Effie begins to lapse into depression again, and Millais is so kind and attentive that she doesn’t know how to deal with his behavior. They hold hands, a bold move in Victorian society. When John returns, Millais chastises John’s indifference toward his wife. John shrugs it off, noting that he’s been married to Effie long enough to know she’s a damaged soul. Millais, in John’s opinion, just doesn’t know her well enough. Millais bristles, barely able to control his anger.

During dinner, more of John’s condescending remarks finally causes Millais to leave in a huff. Later that night, Effie gets up when she hears Millais return. Millais is still angry about the way John treats Effie, but Millais begs him to keep quiet, to avoid waking John. John is secretly awake and overhears the entire conversation. A short time later, John announces they’ll return to London. His lecture in Edinburgh was so successful, they want him to give it at home. Effie refuses to go back, but John is not interested in her opinion. Millais’s anger boils over. Privately, to Effie, he decides he can’t continue the portrait. Effie begs him to continue, because John will make Effie suffer over it. Millais reluctantly agrees. Effie tries to convince Millais to ask John to stay at the house, but Millais fears John suspects something’s going on between him and Effie. Instead, Millais suggests Effie bring Sophie, to give her an outlet for her frustration.

In London, Sophie arrives, and Mr. Ruskin takes a particular interest in her. John announces the family is going on a Grand Tour of Germany, so John can research yet another book. Effie tries to refuse, but again, John won’t hear of it — and now he has the family’s support to back him up. Effie begs John to tell her what he wants from a wife, but John bitterly calls their marriage a crime, accusing Effie of wickedness and impudence. Sophie, who has worked her way into the good graces of the Ruskins, absorbs all the gossip from the family and relays it to Effie. The family’s hostility takes a toll on Sophie, too, but their ability to talk to each other helps with the burden. Effie pays a surprise visit to Lady Eastlake. They have a polite conversation about sex, in which Effie reveals that John has not actually consummated the marriage. On their wedding night, he found her body disgusting and rejected her. Effie explains she would have put up with a sexless marriage, if only he were kind. Now, she wants to know if there’s a legal way to get out of the marriage. Eastlake consults a lawyer, TWISS, who explains that divorce is impossible for a woman to initiate, but because the marriage was never consummated, it can still legally be annulled. Once Twiss files his petition, Effie packs her clothes along with Sophie under the guise of sending Sophie home. They go to the train station with John, but Effie sends him away because they’ve arrived so early. At the Ruskin home, Twiss arrives to serve John with the formal notice of annulment, which shocks the entire family. Millais arrives and asks a servant what happened to Effie. He rushes to the train station. For the sake of propriety, Effie and Millais force Sophie to relay their messages of love. Effie tells Millais that she loves him, but they must wait an appropriate period of time before marrying. Millais agrees.


In focusing on one of the most notorious scandals of the Victorian era (a woman initiating an annulment after six years of marriage!), Effie seeks to put a feminist spin on the outdated notions of propriety while telling a story of doomed romance. It has a few delightful moments, but an overall lack of character development makes it difficult to empathize with the characters and fully buy into the love story. As written, it merits a pass.

While the script does an exceptional job of illustrating the hostile environment Effie is forced to endure in the Ruskin household, the Ruskins themselves are not terribly well-developed. Some early scenes suggest Mrs. Ruskin is jealous of Effie, but this grows less believable as a catalyst for her bad behavior once John starts openly disdaining Effie, too. Ultimately, the Ruskins (including John) come across as stereotypical upper-crust snobs, and they lack any dimension to make them rise above the clichés.

Effie, herself, is an annoyingly passive protagonist, allowing the other characters to push her around like a pawn on a chess board. Even when she finally stands up for herself by seeking an annulment, she does it in the most passive way possible: she asks her influential friend for help, then sneaks out of the Ruskin home in secret and lets her lawyer do all the dirty work. Adding insult to injury, it’s never made entirely clear why Effie fell so hard for John in the first place. A montage of love-letter-exchanging serves as the full development of their romantic relationship. Granted, it’d be a bit disturbing watching a romance between a tween and a full-grown adult, but the writer never truly sells the love (which is the only reason given for them to marry), which in turn makes the marriage difficult to accept.

As for the story, the first act does a reasonably good job of establishing the characters and tone. Despite the ever-changing locales, the scenes of passive verbal abuse toward Effie grow a bit redundant in the second act. As a result, Millais’s importance to the story is undermined for far too long, making his romance with Effie feel a bit rushed, almost to the point that it feels tacked-on. The third act contains some well-crafted surprises — notably the bombshell that John found Effie disgusting and refused to consummate the marriage — but everything speeds by in a blur. Trimming those early scenes of Ruskin abuse in order to let the Millais romance and Effie’s annulment breathe would benefit this script immensely.

Despite the character problems, Effie is a meaty role that, in the hands of an exceptional actress, could impress despite the script’s problems. The movie is likely to fail without a performance of the highest caliber.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 23, 2009 7:51 PM