The new film Effie Gray tells the story of one of the art world’s most infamous love triangles – between the young wife of the prominent Victorian art critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Released on 10 October, it is written by Emma Thompson and stars Dakota Fanning as Effie and Tom Sturridge as Millais. We spoke to Tom about playing one of Britain’s most revered painters

  • Tom Sturridge as Millais in Effie Gray
    Tom Sturridge as John Everett Millais in the film Effie Gray

What attracted you to the film?

The people involved. I think Emma is an extraordinary writer and Dakota has a mystical quality about her that I’ve always been intrigued by.

What was it like working with Dakota?

It was amazing. I never know how old she is but at the time she was surprisingly young. I am someone who gets suicidally self-loathing when I make a film, and I was astonished by her self-confidence and then that self-confidence being backed up by an enormous talent. It’s depressing!

What research did you do into Millais?

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 'The Order of Release 1746' 1852-3
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
The Order of Release 1746 1852-3
Oil on canvas
support: 1029 x 737 mm
frame: 1505 x 1210 x 125 mm
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1898

I went to look at the paintings at Tate Britain, such as The Order of Release [for which Effie modelled]. I remember being struck by how detailed they are. When you see Ophelia, the time he must have spent on the leaves and the foliage and the complexity of the nature is kind of astonishing. This is clearly a man who looks very carefully at things and at people. And then in the context of human relationships, I think that probably extends to listening carefully. I think in my imagination that was why Effie was potentially drawn to him over Ruskin. Because he saw her.

You portray Millais as a man who is very sensitive but perhaps not very articulate.

I think that was something that was within the script but also I have a sense that people who are very good at articulating themselves through a certain medium, for example painting, are not very good at articulating themselves in other ways.

What sense did you get of the relationship between him and Ruskin?

What was extraordinary about Ruskin was the way he took on the Pre-Raphaelites and promoted them at a time when they were not being championed by the artistic community at large. I think Millais was honoured to be respected by someone who had a powerful critical eye. Of course, certainly in the context of the film, when Millais paints Ruskin’s portrait he gets to observe the man in a domestic context. Obviously he sees behaviour he disagrees with and takes him off this pedestal as an artistic critical hero and sees him as the complicated, difficult man he was.

Dakota Fanning as Effie Gray and Greg Wise as John Ruskin

Why is the story still compelling?

The interest in the love lives of famous people continues to this day… I think that’s part of it. People sadly still have a fascination with other people’s failures, specifically in relationships because we all fail in relationships at some point or another. But it’s also because of the success of Millais and Effie’s love afterwards – they had eight children. As far as one can say, they lived happily ever after and we also love romantic endings!

Tate Members can enjoy an exclusive advance screening of Effie Gray on 6 October