Effie Gray (Richard Laxton, 2014)

Effie Gray
I’ve never much cared for pre-Raphaelite art; I’ve no particular problem with it, it just doesn’t aesthetically appeal. And yet the stories that arose from the movement have always had a bit of drama about them that makes it surprising there haven’t been more films about it. This one, written and produced by Emma Thompson, who also joins a pretty strong cast, takes one of the most infamous episodes in the history of one of its most iconic figures.

John Ruskin (here played by Greg Wise) was an influential art critic and writer who used his immense influence to support the young movement, and largely cemented his place in history in doing so. At the height of his fame, he married the young Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (Dakota Fanning), having already met her years before, when she was aged only twelve. All seemed to be going well, both bride and groom blissfully happy, until the wedding night when Ruskin spurned his new wife, and they would never again seriously consider sexual relations with one another. The traditional story is that Ruskin was somehow repulsed by the reality of his previously idealised bride. The more scurrilous rumour was that he was shocked by her pubic hair, and this film hints at that in a suggestion that he might have been sexually or romantically drawn to inappropriately young girls (if not actually paedophilic, in preferring young children, then being drawn to the innocence of young teens – this seems to be true to the history, as far as I can tell).

There is a lot of attention to the mores and practical realities of 19th Century life, and to how trapped this makes Effie, and this gives the film an authenticity that saves it from being simply a potboiler. In addition, the early depiction of Ruskin, if perhaps not exactly flattering, seems to pay more than lip service to both his talent and his good intentions. As the film progresses, he becomes both less sympathetic and also more of a cartoon – whether this is founded on actual accounts of the man, I do not pretend to know, but it does give the film a slightly less convincing tone, though it may well be justified and Ruskin’s actions have to be seen as both suspect in motivation and cruel in effect.

The film is quiet and reserved, making it quite suffocating and claustrophobic, for me as a viewer as well as for Effie as the heroine, until it opens up near the end as Effie finds sympathy, affection and later love from John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge).


The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010)

The Runaways
As a teenager, I recall Joan Jett’s release of “I Love Rock and Roll” as a seemingly ever-present song one year, the band apparently having appeared out of nowhere and disappearing suddenly again. I have no recollection of any other songs by the band, and certainly no idea that Joan Jett had already had any kind of fame before her own band.

Only recently, following the release of this film and, latterly, the use of “Cherry Bomb” in The Guardians of the Galaxy, did I become aware even of the existence of Jett’s prior band, the Runaways. Having recorded this film and having enjoyed Kristen Stewart’s performance in Adventureland, I gave this one a whirl.

The film is based on Cherie Currie’s (here played by Dakota Fanning) book and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is an associate producer, so the film concentrates almost entirely on these two characters. The rest of the band are, mostly, just background detail to the story of the friendship of Currie and Jett. Plus ca change; it seems like this was always the case. Jett was the ‘leader’ of the band, at least in this film’s telling of it, and Currie was the ‘face’, both the singer and the image, for the most part, to the chagrin and resentment of the rest of the band, Jett perhaps excepted.

As the film opens, Jett is starting to get serious about forming a band, though her attempt to take guitar lessons is thwarted by her teacher’s insistence on her learning ‘On Top of Old Smokie’, telling her that rock is for men, not girls. Currie is meanwhile emulating her hero David Bowie, in his Ziggy stage, and miming to his music for her school talent competition, coolly giving the finger to the unappreciative crowd. At a rock club, Jett recognises producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) who, despite initially abusively and mockingly dismissing her, agrees to build a band around her. Together they start looking for a singer, and alight on Currie. Fowley’s idea is to take the most innocent looking girl he can, ‘jailbait’, and subvert this image with the most in-your-face raunch and aggression he can get away with.

Training them to be able to deal with aggression, it seems Fowley is himself abusing the girls more than anyone and you have to wonder if he was actually sociopathic (again, if the representation is a true one) but he does seem to get results and gets both a record deal and a tour, including to Japan. Around this time, punk arrives and the band incorporate the new aesthetic into their act. As their career takes off, the rock and roll lifestyle starts to take its toll on Currie’s and Jett’s health and friendship.

The film isn’t earth-shattering – it goes down a fairly predictable route, not too surprising given its true-life origins – but it was an interesting presentation of a bit of rock history of which I was previously unaware, and an insight into the particular problems women in rock faced, and probably still do.