The Imitation Game and the slippery search for greatness

Britain is nothing if not arrogant, at the very least in terms of its name. How many other countries attach a statement of quality to their name: Great Britain? Of course there may well be historical reasons for this, and it may not actually be meant as a moniker of significance or quality; but as a citizen of the country it’s always smacked of hubris.

I’ve also always found the whole ‘great nation’ thing a little fatuous. How do we ascertain if a country is great? I hear many different claims for a country to be the greatest on earth, but seldom any independent verification of this. How do you judge a nation? How do you rank in terms of greatness? Most nations are great in the eyes of their own leader or citizens; but it seems a little aimless to try some sort of serious assessment of this. Why does one have to be better than the other?

All this was in my mind during The Imitation Game, a true-story adaptation of one of the Second World War’s more remarkable stories. Alan Turing – the subject of the film, played with characteristic commitment and insight by Benedict Cumberbatch – was the man who led the team which broke the German Enigma code, effectively shortening and/or winning the war for the Allies and saving a load of lives into the bargain. In doing so he not only achieved what many believed at the time to be impossible, but he also laid the template for every computer ever built. By any stretch of the imagination, surely Turing’s was a great British achievement.

It’s certainly presented as such in this compelling and enjoyable film. Even if you are familiar with the story it’s never less than utterly engaging; it’s a story I know well and I still had to restrain an air-punch at the vital moment. It’s a film that’s hard not to enjoy. This is achieved with the understanding that the events of the film were a great moment in a great passage of history for Great Britain. It’s not really a flag-waving film (apart from the entirely fair, correct and brief footage of people celebrating the war’s end) so much as it’s trying to be an honest and factual one. This was a great moment.

(spoiler alert – if you don’t know Turing’s story and don’t want part of the film revealed, skip to the next paragraph)

Or was it? For the film doesn’t leave it there. The euphoria is leavened by what comes next. The code-breaking is intercut with a post-war police investigation into Turing’s private life, and scenes from his childhood. At the same time as his unique role in the war effort is discovered, so is his (then illegal) homosexuality. Given the choice between prison or chemical castration, he opted for the latter so he could keep working, Not long after, he committed suicide. Along with thousands of men of the era, his life was forever stained. It was only in 2013 that Turing received a posthumous royal pardon.

Not so great. Even within the essence of an undeniably great British achievement are the seeds of something deeply shameful and unnerving. Greatness, it turns out, is a slippery and complex concept. We think about too simply. We see something admirable, and christen it with a title. Closer examination reveals it’s not so simple. Whether it’s a person or a country, a team or a charity, no one is entirely great. There’s greatness in everyone and every group, every team and nation; there’s also cruelty, shame, abuse, bullying, perversity and hate and any sin you care to name. There’s only One truly deserving of the title ‘Great’; really all other uses of the term should be with a small letter and a careful qualification.

The Imitation Game is a very good film, but with a keen eye for British irony, not a great one. It’s finely directed with a keen eye for detail and the importance of a good story. Occasionally it’s just a little too mechanical to soar, too safe to really provoke in the way it perhaps could. It is, though, very good, exciting, funny and admirable. You won’t be let down and you will, if you allow yourself, be made to think and look more closely at the previously untouchable and unsullied citizens of that far-off island called ‘Greatness’.

I rated the film 4/5 on and 8/10 on

Belle (2013)

A costume drama about slavery, race, love and social justice isn’t necessarily something you’d expect to be not only appropriately subtle but also enjoyable, moving and laced with humour. Belle is all those things, and a film which surprises ad enlightens.

Amma Asante is the British director of this film set in 18th century England. The title character is a young black girl, the daughter of a white British Navy Admiral adopted into the rich family of her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England. The bulk of the story takes place in Belle’s early adulthood, as she is becoming of aware of men and her uncle grappling with a final ruling on the case of a slave ship which threw its cargo of slaves overboard. His ruling will either contribute to the dismantling of slavery, a major industry, or act as a bulwark against the growing opposition to the trade.

It’s a wonderful film from a new director to whom I expect we’ll be paying much attention in the future. She coaxes some wonderfully nuanced performances from a stellar cast (Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson) and from little known Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle. The relationship between her and her adoptive sister is the one on which the film effectively hinges, and it’s beautifully portrayed where it could so easily have been the stuff of a hundred clichéd costume dramas. It delves into the politics of race, slavery and riches with a deft touch; a complex legal case is clearly explained without clunking passages of exposition, raw issues have justice done to them without ever being manipulative or worthy.

It’s an excellent, stimulating and entertaining under-the-radar sort of film which deserves a successful life on DVD and download and television; see it and absorb it.

I rated this film 8/10 on and 4/5 on

Charlie Hebdo and the deep wisdom of silence

Things fall apart.

The centre cannot hold.

Here we are again. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed afresh in a new city. This time the finger of fate points at Paris. Magazine staff, shoppers, police, security guards, caretakers. Lest we forget, in Nigeria 200-2,000 people (depending on who you listen to) are killed by Boko Haram.

Terrorism looses the same old anarchy in new places, in new contexts. People going about their daily lives have those lives cut short; we watch coverage, the term ‘breaking news’ suddenly scarily appropriate one more. The breaking news breaks us afresh.

As it should. It sounds absurd to say this; until terrorism threw its shadow over us and our community I had no idea how terrible it was. Violence and murder is one thing; to be killed in the name of some specious political or religious point whilst our friend was in a Nairobi shopping mall is something else entirely. What had he done to get caught up in it? He was living his life, doing some shopping. We all do it; simply, it was the last thing he did.

I could try to understand, and sometimes I’m tempted. I can’t, though. I can’t bring myself to try to understand the politics and religion of Al-Shabaab, the group responsible. To understand their politics, the situation in Kenya and Somalia would be, for me, to give them a patina of legitimacy. I can’t allow that to happen. I’d rather remember instead the Imam who stood on the stage with me at the funeral and gave me a hug.

So as Paris and Nigeria struggle for air in the suffocating light of tragedy, my heart goes out to them. I sit in the dust and I weep with them. I mourn, I rend my garments. I am angry, I am sad, I stand with them in their responses and pray they are comforted and emboldened.

As I do so, I see others are reaching for explanations, for qualifications, for understanding. The cartoons were racist and offensive; they had it coming; secular democracy and religious fundamentalism are always on a collision course. All true, probably. But not for now.

Now, in this moment, they mean nothing. Unless you are a policy maker or some such person who actually has to do something, your words are empty. If you qualify, if you explain too soon, you cede ground. You are Job’s comforters. You sound correct, and perhaps you are; but what is needed is silence, tears, mourning and the anger of the wounded, scarred, scared and bereaved.

There are too many words from people with too little influence, too little to actually say.

So be quiet awhile, and let ancient words speak.

So these three men stopped answering Job … (Job 32:1)

Behind The Candelabra (2013)

An HBO-originated made for TV movie that received a deserved cinema release, this Steven Soderbergh directed film tells the story of Liberace’s long affair with the much younger Scott Thorson, right up to and beyond the eventual death of the pianist. Even viewed on TV, as I did, it doesn’t come off like a TV movie; Steven Sodebergh’s efficient and composed direction marks this out as worth attention.

However it doesn’t really go to the depths worthy of the film’s outstanding central performances (Michael Douglas as Liberace, Matt Damon as the lover). Liberace is pretty much as you expect the celebrity to be in this sort of story – initially attractive and engaging, then increasingly unpredictable and selfish. Scott Thorson is also as you expect the lover to be: star-struck, naive, enjoying the material benefits of his affair and eventually bitter, angry but still harbouring tender feelings. The narrative never feels quite engaging enough to grip or move; it’s more of a genre piece, really – of rich prince and commoner lover lifted above his station. I was never really moved by it – fascinated, maybe; informed, potentially. However without a real interest in Liberace as an individual or artist, it didn’t move above average.

To say it’s not a TV movie isn’t a value judgement; it’s a substance statement, describing the nature of the beast we’re watching. What we’re watching is a decent, but unspectacular glimpse into the faded glories of the over-privileged and under-loved.

I rated this movie 6/10 on and 2.5/5 on

Margin Call (2011)

With a stellar cast, a heavyweight, urgent theme and a willingness to try to explain the complex in simple terms, Margin Call could have been a major film; an awards contender of relevance and importance. It isn’t; it’s not terrible. It’s pretty good in places; it’s just a let down, and more importantly doesn’t so justice to the subject matter.

The financial crash is one of the defining world events of recent years; as such, it should attract the thoughtful film-maker. It affects everyone; it’s about the stuff in our pocket and bank accounts which affects pretty much everything about our everyday lives. However high finance, like cyber-crime, is hard to make cinematic. Most people understand it less than news reporters seem to think we do; it’s a tough sell about a vital subject.

Margin Call is perhaps the highest profile film to take on the subject. Set in the early days of the crash, it’s the story of 24-hours in the life of a crisis hit investment bank, replete with moral dilemmas and livelihoods on the line.  It has all the elements of a big film about big things. Sadly, it doesn’t work. Earnest as it is, exciting as it tries to be, it’s all just a little inward and a little mystifying. It doesn’t do enough to really explain the high stakes of what’s going on; I still felt like an outsider in a world I didn’t understand. For all its excesses and faults, The Wolf Of Wall Street  did far more to explain the mendacity and hedonism of high finance than Margin Call ever does. Neither are outstanding; but Scorsese’s film lingers longer and deeper in the memory for all that it’s about the surface and the sheen. Margin Call disappoints because it’s so close to being so much more.

I rated this film 3/5 om and 6/10 on

The Intouchables (2011)

A French-language based on a true story drama, The Intouchables is … touching … but not as good as it likes to think it is. In the mind of its creators it seems to be a comic drama of immense human significance; in reality it is powerful and affecting and funny at different times. It’s also clichéd, patronising and predictable.

It’s the story of a rich, privileged quadriplegic man who needs to hire a new carer. He picks a young man with no qualifications and no experience from the Paris housing projects. What follows is a predictable but still effective clash of cultures and expectations, with mutual learning taking place on both sides of the divide. The films seems at pains to not offend with its sensitive subject matter, the overall effect seeming to be at times patronising to the poor and the disabled alike. All poor people like hip-hop, it seems; all the rich, classical music. The quadriplegic man struggles to feel, you see. Yes, really. All a bit trite at times.

At others is affecting though. It chimed with me at points; it encourages an engaging, counter-cultural lack of safety and wisdom the better to actually build meaningful lives and relationships, to break artificial barriers and self-limitations. It’s encourages a kind of holy recklessness on its viewers, that you suspect will get lost amidst the worthiness for many. If only the film itself had shown a little more danger and a little less safety, we could have had something more special and less crowd-pleasing.

I rated this film 3/5 on and 6/10 on