Bright, beautiful young Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning) marries renowned art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), a man who is significantly older and wealthier than her, and whom she has known since childhood. To Effie, it seems like a fairy tale – but from their wedding night onwards, something is terribly wrong. The newlyweds move in with Ruskin’s overbearing parents, and over the years which follow, her in-laws interference and her husband’s neglect cause Effie to waste away.
A ray of hope comes in the form of Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson), an acquaintance who offers a sympathetic ear. A trip to Venice sets Effie’s mind whirling as to the other possibilities which life could offer; and a holiday to Scotland with Ruskin’s handsome protégé Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) could bring scandal or salvation.
- Did you enjoy the film, and why or why not? How did it compare with other period dramas you have seen?
- What did you make of Effie Gray’s visuals? How did the costumes, sets and locations help to tell the story? How did these things reflect the story’s themes of repression and beauty?
- The truth about the historical story of Effie Gray and John Ruskin is disputed. Were you aware of this whilst watching the film, and if so did it affect your response? Do filmmakers have any particular responsibilities when dealing with real historical figures?
- How did you respond to the character of Effie, and Dakota Fanning’s performance? What are the most difficult aspects of Effie’s situation, and what emotional impact does it have on her? How does she grow and change throughout the story?
‘I am sorry to be a disappointment to you both.’ – John Ruskin
- How did you respond to the character of John, and Greg Wise’s performance? To what extent is John portrayed as the villain of the story? What hints and clues are we given as to the reasons for his behaviour, and how much sympathy did you feel towards him?
- Effie Gray is a story about emotional distance and alienation; as such, how emotionally engaging is the film intended to be? Did you feel an emotional connection with the characters, and why or why not?
- How does the film explore ideas around art and truth? What does Ruskin have to say about the subject of truthfulness in art, and how do his ideas clash with his behaviour in his private life?
‘Now she is fallen from that grace… once she was a virgin, now she is a harlot.’ – John Ruskin
- What kinds of identity are possible for Effie throughout the story – can she be anything other than a ‘virgin’ or ‘harlot’? In what ways does she become trapped by the roles or labels which other people impose on her? How might her story reflect the experiences of women in Victorian society, and throughout history?
- How is marriage portrayed in Effie Gray? To what extent do you think John and Effie’s problems are specific to Victorian society, and to what extent are they the universal challenges of marriage? How do people in our society viewed married life?
- To what extent should John’s focus on his work have taken priority over his marriage? Should people with exceptional gifts or abilities – especially those with the potential to benefit humankind – bear less responsibility for their relationships?
‘I am sorry to say, my dear, it is a mistake you will have to live with. There is no going back.’ – Lady Eastlake
- Do you agree that a bad or difficult marriage is ‘a mistake [someone] will have to live with’ – and what happens when neglect or abuse enters the picture? What might people in our society say are the criteria for when a marriage is beyond repair? What might you have advised Effie to do?
- What moral responsibility do spouses have for one another’s welfare? Can they still fulfil this responsibility at times when romantic love is faded or absent, and why or why not? How might similar responsibilities also apply to friends, family, and those around us in our community?
‘In the same way now that men are bombarded with images of what is supposed to be the ideal woman, after the Pre-Raphaelite ideal anything is going to be a let-down. Real life is wrinkles and smells.’ – actor Greg Wise
- How might our own image-obsessed society create similar problems to those experienced by John and Effie? In what areas of society are men ‘bombarded with images of what is supposed to be the ideal woman’, and what impact might this have on both genders?
- How do Ruskin’s misguided beliefs about Effie’s ‘purity’ or perfection – moral as well as physical – damage their relationship? What flipside do we see to these beliefs when he thinks she has wronged him? Why are we often tempted to either idealise or vilify people, and how might we go about relating to others as they really are?