Top 5... - February 20, 2015

Effie Gray (and five of the best films about artists)
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

Effie Gray (and five of the best films about artists)

As an actress, Emma Thompson needs little introduction on these shores. Something of a national treasure, Thompson has earned herself a number of awards over the years, including two Oscars, but only one of these was for acting. The other was in recognition of her writing talents, having penned the screenplay for Ang Lee's 1995 period drama Sense and Sensibility. Since then Thompson has written two more screenplays featuring her Nanny McPhee character and next week the latest of her films, Effie Gray, arrives in the UK on DVD & Blu-Ray, and it's her most unusual script yet.

For those not familiar with the film's titular protagonist, Effie Gray is based on the true story of the woman who married the Victorian era's leading art critic, John Ruskin. A talented artist in his own right, Ruskin was hugely influential in the art world, championing the Pre-Raphaelite movement and becoming the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University, as well as publishing a number of respected academic works on the subject of environmentalism.

Despite his many achievements, one of the most enduring stories about Ruskin's life concerned his marriage to Effie Gray, a marriage that famously remained unconsummated until they eventually divorced just a few years later. There has been much speculation over the years as to why Ruskin apparently shunned any sexual contact with his new wife, with one of the most popular (yet least plausible) explanations being that Ruskin had never encountered a naked woman before his wedding night and was revolted by the sight of his bride's pubic hair.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Thompson clearly felt this was a story that needed telling properly and along with director Richard Laxton she has put together an impressive cast to act out her latest script. Dakota Fanning stars as the bride in question, while Thompson herself also features alongside Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Russell Tovey, Derek Jacobi and David Suchet. The film focusses on the breakdown of their marriage and Effie's subsequent affair with the famous Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Everett Millais.

Effie Gray offers an insight into the private lives of some of the Victorian art world's most renowned figures and if period dramas are your thing there are few better equipped to deliver the goods than Emma Thompson. For those of you who find all that costume drama stuff a bit out of date however, we've picked out five other films about artists to inspire your creative streak. You can also watch the trailer for Effie Gray below...

 

 

Mr. Turner

When many art critics were lambasting J.M.W. Turner's later paintings, John Ruskin was one of the few art critics who stood up for Turner's more expressionist paintings, so we had to include Mike Leigh's superb biopic of the renowned artist on our list. Starring Timothy Spall, the film charts the final 25 years or so of Turner's life, detailing his foray into more experimental styles and the profound effect on the artist caused by the death of his father. If you don't know much about Turner's work, Leigh's film is the perfect introduction and Timothy Spall's superb portrayal of the notoriously difficult artist makes this film as entertaining as it is educational.

 

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Few street artists have attained the level of fame and notoriety that the Bristol-born Banksy has achieved in recent years, so when this documentary emerged in 2010 many of his admirers were hoping to learn a little more about the famously secretive artist. What actually transpired was, however, much stranger. Initially, Banksy had allowed an eccentric French shopkeeper-turned-amateur-filmmaker named Thierry Guetta to be the first to document him at work, but it is Guetta that ends up becoming the focus of the film when he decides that he too wants to be an artist. Some have speculated as to whether Guetta is actually a fictional creation of Banksy's, dreamt up as a biting criticism of the modern art world, but whatever the truth this documentary is weirdly compelling and a must-see for fans of street art everywhere.

 

Lust for Life

If you were asked to imagine the archetypal 'tortured genius' of the art world, the chances are that Dutch master Vincent van Gogh wouldn't be too far from your thoughts. Although he only sold two paintings in his entire lifetime, van Gogh achieved infamy through stories like the one that involves the artist cutting of his own ear, reportedly the result of a combination of unrequited love and a large quantities of Absinthe. There have been several films about van Gogh over the years, but one of the best is Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as the man himself. Douglas is just brilliant in his depiction of the artist, whose obsessive nature envelops and ultimately destroys him. It's tough going in places, but well worth watching if you're a fan of van Gogh's work.

 

 

Pollock

Probably one of the most radical and influential artists of the 20th century, Jackson Pollock has one of the most recognisable styles in the history of art. Directed by and starring Ed Harris as the brilliant but volatile artist, Pollock charts his struggle with alcoholism, his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his battle for recognition in the face of traditionalist art critics. Harris captures the unhinged brilliance of Jackson Pollock's life and work perfectly, making this an enthralling film even if you're not particularly aware of Pollock's work. Highly recommended.

 

Style Wars

Our final pick isn't about any single artist, but an art movement that emerged as part of hip-hop culture in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although this documentary covers the emerging hip-hop scene in a broader sense, the focus here is very much on the graffiti artists that covered walls, train carriages and anything else with their spray-painted designs. It's a fascinating reminder of how far we've come from the days of graffiti being condemned as little more than vandalism, especially given the value placed on works by the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey these days. Those featured in Style Wars are among the pioneers that allowed the likes of Banksy to make a living from his work, and with a soundtrack that's every bit as good as the film itself, this is essential viewing for any hip-hop heads or budding graffiti artists.

Effie Gray
Effie Gray Richard Laxton

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