The failed marriage of John Ruskin one of England’s celebrated Art Critic was one of biggest sex scandals of the Victorian era. Although in this instance the public embarrassment was for a change actually about the lack of sex! Effie Gray his very young virgin bride took the unprecedented step of suing her husband for divorce on the grounds of the marriage being non consummated. ‘He never laid a finger on me’ claimed the naïve 19 year old, a point backed up be a couple of rather shocked frock-coated old male doctors.
This true story has been adapted into a Victorian Soap Opera, complete with pretty period costumes and shot on location in unspoilt parts of London, by Oscar winning actor/scribe Emma Thompson. She also gets to play Lady Eastlake the wife of the all-important President of the Royal Academy and an older unlikely ally for the blushing bride. Ms. Thompson’s own husband actor Greg Wise gets to play the cold-fish of a spoilt mummy’s boy Ruskin who starts tormenting his neglected wife with passive/aggressive psychological abuse once she starts to question his complete avoidance of his husbandly duties.
When the Ruskins marry they move in with his parents, both of who dote on and indulge their only son whose fame and reputation was really growing now. They considered their new daughter-in-law a necessity of life, but made little effort to get to know her or develop any sort of relationship. In fact when they disapproved of any aspect of her behavior they considered detriment to their dear son’s happiness in any way, they came down on her like a ton of bricks. Ma-In-Law (brilliantly played by perpetual scene stealer Julie Walters) actually had their Maid give Effie a daily tonic, which as she suspected turned out be some mild sort of poison.
It was never clear why Ruskin found his teenage bride so repulsive or why he went out of his way to literally throw her in to the arms of his protégé the handsome young artist Everett Millais but according to history, or Ms. Thompson’s take on it, this is indeed what happened.
Directed by television director Richard Lawson it had a very impressive star-studded cast lead by a pretty Dakota Fanning. It really was an extravagance to gather such an array of talent as aside from the key players. nearly all of them were so terribly underused. Having actors of the magnitude such as Claudia Cardinale, Derek Jacobi, James Fox, Robbie Coltrane, Linda Basset and Russell Tovey and then giving them each barely more than a few lines each, seemed such an extraordinary waste.
Ruskin was a great supporter of the landscape artist J W Turner’s work and so if you saw the recent excellent bio-pic on him, then you may be interested this melodrama which is otherwise is sadly a lot about nothing. The two men had been great friends on real life and shared a passion for art, but obviously not for women. JW just couldn’t keep his pants on, whilst Mr. Ruskin never ever married again so he obviously preferred to keep his trousers well and truly buttoned up.