Category: British Cinema

The Imitation Game (UK-US 2014)

Joan Clark (Keira Knightley), Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the point when Joan joins the team.

The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.

The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.

The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the  one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.

The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting  but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)

Alan Turing (photo by Elliot and Fry, 1951)

Alan Turing (photo by Elliot and Fry, 1951)

The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.

The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.

I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).

So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?

To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (UK 2014)

The old Pavilion building - autumn 2014.

The old Pavilion building – autumn 2014.

This film by Mark Fell and Luke Fowler is a commission by the Pavilion and Hyde Park Picture House. The film was premiered at the Picture House on November 22nd: there will be further screening throughout the year. The cinema and the Pavilion have already collaborated on several art projects, revolving in some way round film and cinema. The audience was welcomed by Wendy Cook, General Manager of the Hyde Park, and Gill Park, the Director of the Pavilion. Gill commented that the Pavilion tends to works that ‘rub against the grain’, certainly the case with this film. Essentially the film is an example of montage – often rapidly changing and frequently discontinuous images and sound. The material in the film is worked up from an Archive project, including photographs, reports, minutes, publicity and associated materials, to which have been added, contemporary film, interviews and contemporary sound.

The Pavilion project was sited in the Park alongside the main Leeds University Campus and opened in 1983, and has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary.

The Pavilion was formed in 1983 with the stated aim of being the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography. Against a backdrop of heightened social, political and economic conflicts, the Pavilion set about turning the prevailing patriarchal image-culture inside-out.

The project has suffered ups and down, ‘a contested history’, and the loss of the original venue. That currently stands closed in the Park.

It took me a little time to get into the film but then it became increasingly interesting. The film uses 1200 black and white photographs from the archive filmed on a rostrum camera. Alongside these are a series of interview with artists who were part of or have some connection with the original Pavilion. And there are montages of material from the archive including local and more general material. And there is contemporary footage of people and places.

The photographs cover a range of subjects and settings: women’s’ activities, urban settings, the seaside, Yorkshire Gritstone . . . The parallel archive material is equally varied: minutes and such like from the early days of the Pavilion; posters and publicity; feminist leaflets and publications:

Most of the material is from the 1980s – and the local items bring back memories from that period: a shot through the window of the Victoria pub; the Hyde Park and University surrounds; a Punjabi teacher in Chapeltown; issues of Leeds Other Paper; The Video Vera project; the Leeds Animation Workshop . . .

The sense of what constituted The Pavilion and its significance relies extensively on the interviews. Each participant has selected a photograph [in one case two] from the archive. They describe this for the audience, though we only see the pictures tangentially. One participant commented on the difficulties she found in doing this.

These reminiscences include the developing work of the project: at one point an interviewee comments;

We really believed that working class women would come along and they didn’t.

Later the types of funding available favoured:

Working with the communities nearby – including Asian women and the children.

A central struggle against the objectification of women in photographic art produced examples of work in which young women were ‘demure, saucy and sexualised.’

The limitations of the industry reminded one interviewee that a woman always had

to work harder than anybody else.

The politics of feminism in the period are discussed. A young photographer commented when women criticised the work of another

I was scared of taking photographs of women because of that sort of comment.

And the politics of the colonized or imperialised countries raised questions about the autonomy of the subject, as a young woman,

someone who had little say in the photograph or how it was used.

An artist who presented a travelling exhibition of work shot on the Falls Road in Belfast recalled being arrested on the way to Rochdale and the exhibition being disrupted by a bomb threat.

The interviewees discussed theory, practice and important texts in the feminist movement. Laura Mulvey’s ideas get a mention as do the ideas and arguments by Selma James. I was intrigued by a reference to the ’Soviet Union’s first sexual manual.’ The journals and venues of the time appear, Radical Feminist, Who Needs Nurseries, The Other Cinema, . . . and the alternatives, The Kodak Girl ads, Marilyn standing over an air event, . . .

Towards the end there is a clip from the BBC Calendar in 1985 which offered a short profile the project. The presented welcomed ‘the ladies’: unperturbed they offered a concise description of the aims and work of The Pavilion.

Amat photo

The combination of different strands or changing or even competing images and sounds builds up into a strong sense of the ethos and achievements of the project. Given the ‘contested history’ there is amply space for audiences to assess and develop their own interpretations of this.

The photographs were filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera and much of the archive material is also from rostrum work. The editing of this with film and interviews builds up a complex tapestry of memories and meanings. There is a memorable shot of the camera person shot in a mirror.

Whilst the images are in a form of montage much of the sound is asynchronous. At times there is also accompanying music and rhythms. For this première the sound track was relayed directly into the auditorium with staff moving the speakers at different points. For audiences sound often lack the specific spatial sense one can gain from images: I found this particular technique imaginative and very effective.

The work of the research and production teams was headed by Mark Fell, an indisciplinary artist, and Luke Fowler, who frequently works in 16mm. This makes it a feminist project directed by two men, interesting but also contestable. Two of the participants did just this. At a few points we also heard the questions put to the interviewees and there were occasions when they also contested the nature of the questions themselves. These add to the rich complexity of the film. It also engages with the changes in the feminist movements that have occurred since the original founding of The Pavilion.

I was impressed both with the film and the presentation – I shall certainly revisit it. Happily there was a substantial audience to enjoy the evening. There are at least six more screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House in November and December. The actual film runs for about 70 minutes and is well worth the time spent.

Short Film City – British Short Film Competition

Anthony

Anthony

This was another strand in the Leeds International Film Festival extremely extensive coverage of short films – local and international, features, documentaries and animation. The British selection comprised 15 films spread over two programmes.

Exchange and Mart (2013 – 15 minutes).The film was set in 1986 in a girls’ boarding school somewhere in the Highlands. The film opened with the teenage girls attending self-defence classes. Then it explored the way that two particular girls responded to and explored the issue of men and sex. The treatment and performances were nicely done. Rather than being dramatic the film struck a droll note, as suggested by the title which is also refers to a prop.

A Generation of Vipers (2013 – 15 minutes). ‘A day in the life of a violent and nihilistic youth …’.As the Catalogue description suggests this is a bleak character study. The young lad is effectively portrayed and there is some context; though I felt this needed more development.

Love Me Tinder (2014 – 11 minutes). This is an evening between two online daters – an older woman and a younger man. The treatment is deliberately oddball, as the title suggests. I found it not surreal enough to be funny but lacking realism it seemed to lack comment.

The Outside In (2014 – 20 minutes). This film used an unconventional set to present a couple where the man dominates and virtually imprisons the young girl. I never quite figured out how the setting was supposed to comment on the relationship, though the intent was clearly symbolic.

  1. Enstone (2014, 15 minutes. The film was developed from the discovery of 89 reels of Super 8mm film shot in the 1980s by the aforesaid Richard Enstone. The introduction suggested ‘hidden messages’, which never actually seemed to materialise. The film used the Super-8mm footage in a variety of ways – original ratio, stretched, split screen and speeded up. There were also interviews with people who knew Enstone. I thought there was interesting material here but that this documentary did not make adequate use of it.

Woodhouse (2013 – 9 minutes).The film is set in the Woodhouse Nature Reserve in South East London.  This is partly fantasy, mainly from the viewpoint of a child. The film makes good use of effects and school artefacts. As the mystery develops a local journalist also becomes involved, but this mystery is too whimsical for the media.

Anthony (UK / Finland, 2014 – 15 minutes). This is a droll tale of Santa, elves, reindeer and, of course, Rudolph. It offers a sardonic take on the winter festival, just the entertainment to follow over-indulgence during the festivities. It has bright, pleasing snow covered settings and has some fine unconventional gags.

Sex Life

Sex Life

Sexlife (2014 – 15 minutes). Another film which is letterboxed within a 2.37:1 frame. It presents a couple facing a minor crisis, to which the husband responds with extreme measures. The opening belies the direction of the story, which presents an intriguing and revealing exchange between the couple. It is effective though I found the conclusion not completely convincing.

Alice (2014 – 5 minutes).Thomas was ten when his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. The adults in the family are quite inhibited in the relationship, Thomas, unencumbered by adult attitudes, relates effectively and playfully with her. A warn portrait of a very positive relationship.

The Stomach (2014 – 15 minutes). This is a bizarre tale of an extremely unconventional medium. It is definitely sardonic and does tend to schlock. There are some visceral moments and a very effective reversal.

Seagulls (2014 – 14 minutes).  This was one of several films produced by Creative Scotland. They all enjoyed high production values: and this was for me the most completely realised. Ryan and his mother, who run a fair attraction, arrive in a small seaside town on the West Coast. Ryan’s life style has limited his opportunities for bonding with other teenagers. Meeting a group of local boys he is invited to join in on their celebration of the longest night. This involves climbing up into the surrounding foothills and soon an unfortunate incident. The film makes good use of both the small town environment and the mountainscape. The there is very effective staging and blocking to comment on the characters and events.

Crow (2014 – 5 minutes). The film uses an extract from a reading by Ted Hughes of his major poem, ‘Crow’. The film adds to this music by Leafcutter John. The animation is visceral and exceedingly well done. Five very rewarding minutes.

Crocodile (A Life to Live, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a film about bereavement: in this case the loss for a head teacher and his wife of their teenage daughter whilst working for Voluntary Service overseas. The sense of loss and the accompanying performance was extremely well done. The film leads up to a moment of catharsis: I found the final scene unconvincing, but I have always thought crocodiles, whilst dangerous are also oddly attractive.

Blue Train (2014 – 15 minutes}. The train journey in this film is by a man into his past, his dreams and imaginings. The journey involves magical landscapes, and figures from his actual life. The combination is extremely intriguing and the visual splendour gives great pleasure. The film has original music Alexandros Kavadas and Paul Tyan, but there are also some extracts from Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’.

1946 (2014 – 15 minutes). Set in a gleaming chromium bar we meet Jimmy Stewart home from World WWII. His agent has a new prestige script but Jimmy will actually go on to make the classic It’s a wonderful Life (1946). This was pastiche, and I always think this is the most difficult type of treatment to get right. The film did not work for me: possibly because the actual Jimmy Stewart is one of my two or three favourite |Hollywood stars.

I thought the second programme was much the stronger of the two. There were a number of fine films in that programme. With some of the weaker productions I felt that they either failed to combine narrative and style effectively, or that generic qualities tended to cliché: I rather thought these stemmed from weaknesses in the script writing. But there are promising young filmmakers out there, as the Brochure suggests,

Prepare to meet the film directors / actors/ key grips of top morrow.

Given what I saw in the best shorts there are also certainly the cinematographers and animators of tomorrow. Plus a number of technical craftspeople whose work contributed to effectiveness of the films.

What We Did On Our Holiday (UK 2014)

David Tennant and Rosamund Pike with Emilia Jones as Lotte.

David Tennant and Rosamund Pike with Emilia Jones as Lotte.

The generally good showing of this comedy at the UK box office (over £3 million after 3 weeks) indicates the strength of a new cycle of TV-film sitcom adaptations. The cycle was kick-started by the phenomenal success of The Inbetweeners (2011) followed by Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie (2014) and The Inbetweeners 2 (2014). In the Loop (2009) is also a link as a ‘spin-off from the TV series In the Thick of It. The last time a cycle this was evident was back in the 1970s as the old UK studio system was on its last legs.

What We Did On Our Holiday is slightly different in re-casting the central characters, but to many audiences in the UK the new film is a big-screen excursion for writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins and their creation of Outnumbered. The television show featured the relationship between a middle-class couple and their three children, each of whom in a different way were able to out-think their parents. The young actors were allowed to improvise on set, making the confusion of their scripted parents more believable. Since the characters have now grown up (the series began in 2007) they would need to be re-cast by definition but the first question the new film raises is the replacement of Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis by Rosamund Pike and David Tennant. The simple answer is possibly that the parents have to be younger as well as the children, but I did feel that Tennant, a fine actor and a star TV performer, was not well-cast in the film. Rosamund Pike copes better and she has now got genuine film presence rather than a TV profile. There has been some evidence of Tennant’s legion of fans complaining that he doesn’t feature enough in the narrative – which inevitably perhaps focuses on the three children.

The children are the central issue for many audiences and critics. On a crude level, the children are either irritating smartarses or totally believable as bright kids confronting the world with questions and logical responses. I’m in the latter camp but it isn’t difficult to find plenty of disgruntled critics who can’t stand the children. My impression is that the children in the feature film improvise less than in the TV version. Perhaps because they are less familiar they also seem to me to be slightly less ‘extreme’ in their performances, certainly I found them ‘softer’. They are younger and now there are two girls and a boy, reversing the TV casting. I thought all three gave excellent performances which is a credit to Hamilton and Jenkin who haven’t directed for the cinema before.

The film’s plot sees Tennant and Pike as Doug and Abi, a couple in London in the process of living in separate houses and divorcing each other – but not yet explaining their plans to their children or to the rest of the family. Now they must travel to the Highlands for Doug’s father’s 75th birthday. Played by Billy Connolly, Gordy McLeod has cancer and this might be his last birthday. The birthday party is being hosted by Doug’s brother Gavin (Ben Miller) who is the ‘successful’ son with a large income and a big house ‘on the company’.

The main action takes place on the day of the party – a huge affair with a marquee in the grounds and a hundred plus guests. Grandad takes the three kids to his favourite spot on the beach to escape the preparations and the tone of the film changes slightly. What happens next seems to have surprised, even shocked some audiences but seemed to be well-handled to me.

Much of the last third of the narrative depends on the setting near Gairloch on the North West coast of Scotland. The huge skies, the beauty of the landscape and the hordes of midgies plus the isolation and local mythologies all point to that aspect of Scottish film culture that is always prone to ‘tartanry’. Because of this, it is tempting to link the film to Local Hero, The Wicker Man etc. The film is part-funded by Creative Scotland and I hope it encourages tourism but I don’t think it delves into Scottish stereotypes too much. Instead there is a focus on the tabloid media, reminding us of Hamilton and Jenkin’s first big hit, the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey (sorely missed – what could that programme have done with social media culture?).

Billy Connolly is restrained and very funny and Amelia Bulmore is affective as Gavin’s depressed wife. The strong supporting cast also includes Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. There is some cod philosophising, but overall I found the film to be good entertainment. I laughed, I cried and I left the cinema satisfied. What more can you ask?