Review: The Imitation Game

On Saturday, Cecilia dragged me out to see The Imitation Game: the story of Britain’s Enigma-code-cracking team in Hut 8, and, more broadly, of Alan Turing’s life. It was fairly good, as movies go, but days later, I’m left conflicted about it._TFJ0226.NEF

The good:

It’s effective, cinematically speaking. The storyline trips back and forth between Turing’s application to Bletchley Park, his schoolboy days at Sherborne School, and how a robbery at his house after the war led to him being arrested and tried for gross indecency, that is, for homosexual behavior. This braiding of events maintains the tension: will Alan get the job? Will he and his childhood friend Christopher carry on happily at Sherborne or will some disaster befall them? What will the interrogating policeman learn? Will the team indeed crack the Enigma…and, having done so, what will they do with it?

So that’s all very good, in its way. Benedict Cumberbatch, as always, presents us with a lonely eccentric academic who, despite being a bit of an arsehole, wins our sympathies. Turing’s represented as an extremely literal man who has difficulty parsing people and may be a touch autistic. This difficulty is neatly encapsulated in young Alan asking his friend Christopher at school: “How’s code-breaking different from people? No one says what they really mean.” Alex Alex LawtherLawther, who plays the young Turing, is very good at letting his eyes shine with quiet, earnest admiration of this friend. He also rather resembles the real Turing more than BTCC does – though Benedict can turn his body to admirable use, going from the fresh-faced Bletchley Park applicant to the older, more drawn fellow undergoing interrogation, to the oestrogen-injected man, stumbling feebly while still trying to work on his machine.

The rest of the cast was also fairly good, from those overseeing Bletchley to those on Turing’s mathematical code-cracking team to the policeman who, having dug into Turing’s past and interrogated him, regrets having done so. It is satisfying to see Turing triumph over Commander Denniston with Winston Churchill as his advocate; Awkwardgut-twisting to see the team keep German naval plans secret, though the brother of one of them will die within hours on account of it; intriguing to have a Soviet spy found out; and awkward as all get-out to see Turing propose to his friend Joan Clarke lest she leave Bletchley, then break off the engagement on account of his homosexuality (and, one presumes, to keep her safe).

Finally, the set was carefully constructed, both to give visual cues to Turing’s later work and to display a bit more of how his Bombe machine (not actually named “Christopher”) worked. Newsreel clips are spliced in to show footage of both the Blitz and the victory celebrations when the war is over. The film ends with Hut 8 burning their classified work, and on-screen text regarding the end of Turing’s life, British treatment of homosexuals, and the calculation that breaking Enigma shortened the war by more than 2 years, saving over 14 million lives.


The bad:

Translating a person’s life to not-quite-two-hours of screen time means a lot of oversimplification. This is understandable, and perhaps I’m simply picky, but I found it disappointing that Turing’s work was so cinemafied. All his mathematical discoveries, the philosophical implications of the question “Can machines think?,” his research in biology, is glazed over. Maybe those involved decided such things would require time they couldn’t spare, but it seems a shame to present Turing’s life without digging into what he did and what he accomplished outside the context of war.

That, and I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at the repeated line “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Ugh.  Sometimes it’s the people who are really good at math who do the things no one can imagine, Hollywood, though I know that’s a less encouraging thesis to so many of us.
The ugly:

I’m leery about history because my own grasp of it is comparatively weak, and I’m leery about movies depicting historical events because of the cinematic tendency (necessity?) to manipulate characters and happenings in certain ways. In addition, I’m leery of unmitigated condemnation of people’s (or government’s) decisions in the past, using today’s mores.

The onscreen text over the bonfire at the end states outright that Alan killed himself in 1954, after a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy. This is actually a matter of considerable debate: he was given injections, and fourteen months later died of cyanide poisoning, but it is unclear whether he accidentally inhaled fumes from an experiment or purposely ingested it. Either way it is a tragic event and a great loss, but there is a difference between death by misadventure and death by one’s own hand.  The ever-burgeoning machine for LGBT interests may, I suppose, claim him as martyr where the estrogen injections were concerned (quite appalling enough for some); it therefore strikes me as suspicious that they couldn’t leave it at “Alan died of cyanide poisoning in suspicious circumstances which may have been suicide.”

From what I’ve read, Turing was not left broken by the treatments; even his experience of gynaecomastia spurred his biological research.  So presenting him as an enfeebled creature who couldn’t solve his crosswords anymore leaves me with a bit of a bad taste, as it seems more fit to say “Look at what he accomplished in spite of it all!”
All in all, I recommend The Imitation Game, though more for its virtues as a movie than for its historical accuracy.  Expect to leave the theater thinking a little bit about Turing’s accomplishments, but mostly pondering the role of government, the nature of homosexuality, and the law.

Review: August, Osage County

Wednesday was $5 day at my local theater, so after watching Frozen, I set out to give myself emotional whiplash by heading straight into August: Osage County.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I set out to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his five movie projects released in 2013, and perhaps to see what Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, et al. brought to it.  The emotional whiplash was just a side effect.

August is the time of year, Osage county in northern Oklahoma the place.  Plot summary: author Beverly Weston disappears from his home (and, incidentally, puzzles me, because who names their son Beverly?  I bet he had a brother named Sue Not-Appearing-In-This-Film).  His family – 3 daughters, a sister-in-law, and their respective spouses/children – come home to empathize with his wife Violet while waiting for him to turn up, and are thus ideally placed for the funeral when he turns up drowned.  And then, the players having congregated on the board, family dynamics drive each person hither and yon again.

At first, I thought “This is one of the realest stories I have seen in a while.” The rural Oklahoma setting, for one, reminds me of my familial home down in southern Illinois in so many ways. It has the flat land, the oil wells, the unforgiving heat and the shimmer of the air, the small town nearby, even the left turn from the highway onto the dirt road heading home. The cars they drive, the style and decoration of the house, the casserole dishes: it all felt familiar, more familiar than I’ve seen in a film before.

You may be focusing on the knock-down brawl going on, but I am looking at those wooden pillars at the sides of the room. My grandparents’ house has pillars just like that!

Then there’s Meryl Streep as Violet Weston.  She’s phenomenal.  She stumbles in as Beverly interviews a young woman, Johnna, to be housekeeper.  “You an injun?” Violet asks, with the casual racism of the woman too old to care about political correctness (or too apathetic until she can attack someone else for alluding to childhood games of “cowboys and Indians”).  The way her voice alternately sweetens and sharpens as she asks Johnna about herself, addresses her husband, and gives some details about herself and her mouth cancer – I have seen that before, mostly in my grandmother as her own dementia began to progress.

Bev disappears.  The girls come home from Colorado and Miami, everyone bemoans the heat, the sheriff arrives with news and a body that needs to be identified, the funeral is followed by the most painful funeral lunch you ever saw.  Violet’s speech, her swift changes of mood, her not-always-appropriate anecdotes, her occasional lapses into bitterness over her children and what she sacrificed for them – these all prompt the other characters to react accordingly, also true-to-life.

Then it all goes a bit…screwy.  No, more than a bit.  The Weston family is far more dysfunctional than mine: there’s more divorce, the lone teenager is angstier (shame she doesn’t have siblings or cousins), there’s such distance between everyone…not to mention suicide, a touch of drug use (prescription and otherwise), and a soupçon of accidental incest.  Possibly more than a soupcon, actually.  There’s also far less religious observance – you can tell by the awkwardness of the mealtime prayer – which helps explain why no one ever seems to have heard of forgiving, forgetting, or wishing for another’s good more than one’s own.  Toss that all in a room together, and it becomes one big powder keg.

Here’s where the post-Frozen whiplash gets bad: whereas Anna trusts her sister Elsa unstintingly despite years of isolation (and that one time with the ice spikes), and Elsa protects Anna the best she can after conquering her fears, the Weston ladies are, as Ivy puts it, “Just people accidentally connected by genetics.”  You can’t pick your family, it says, though Charles Aiken (Bev and Violet’s brother-in-law) reminds everyone in word and deed that you can choose how to regard your family.

That’s more or less the upshot of it.  Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara, might provide grim amusement with their increasingly vicious, obscene, and histrionic hollering, but I reckon they’re more important as an all-too-realistic cautionary tale.  I’ve read that Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenplay writer, is preoccupied with the question of “whether it’s ever possible to overcome the dysfunction passed down through generations.”  Of course, yes, it’s possible – but not alone. You need grace for that.  And grace, like Sue, is not appearing in this film.

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Sonnet Duel Second: SH

Thalia has had a bit of a rough week.  I think I may fairly say that most of her energies have been directed in non-poetic pursuits, such that she was ready to concede defeat to the Dusty Thane and The Edge.

But as in all duels, it seemed meet and right for her to have a second, one who would battle in her stead and let her grab some healing potion catch a breather or whatever dueling poets need to support this poesy and life.

It would also be fair to say that this is not my best, and it is rather spoiler-laden for anyone intending to watch the BBC series Sherlock who hasn’t gotten around to it yet.  I shall say it again:  Spoilers ahead.  Go watch it and get back to us.  

Bring tissues.

SH

We watched him leap and plummet to the ground,
forsaking life to save those lives he loves –
his limbs gone limp, his crushed head bloodied ‘round,
with no one reassuring us he bluffs
but for that glimpse once John had left his grave.
We eagerly that fiction seize and trust
which somehow shall the great detective save –
how terrible to love what death can touch!
The greatest fan owns death’s reality,
and shoves a slew of souls in its direction.
For all we can’t evade mortality,
we sure do love to see a resurrection!
I think there must a greater reason be
than Sherlock’s vowed return in Season Three.