The Imitation Game
It’s Oscar night, and that means two things:
1. I’m going to bed because I’ve got better things to do than stay up until 5 a.m. watching an awards show when I will most likely bitch about the result.
2. If you’re reading this then you may actually be watching the ceremony. Good luck to you.
Having noticed a sudden spike in traffic of 100% today to my blog, mainly composed of people searching for the search terms “Oscar” and “scorecard”, although well done to the one person who arrived here by searching for “reese witherspoon can’t act” and, more bizarrely, the two people who both searched for “composition of air 3d pie chart”. Just for you two:
For the rest of you, here’s my completed scorecard for this year with my usual categories:
And here’s a blank one for you to fill in while you wait for Neil Patrick Harris to shuffle along:
Whatever you’re doing tonight, have fun!
The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.
But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:
– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena
The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.
So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:
The Imitation Game
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin
That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.
The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.
I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.
But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:
Next Goal Wins
Kajaki: The True Story
The Possibilities Are Endless
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)
I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.
But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.
The Pitch: Turing tested.
The Review: It might seem difficult to imagine for anyone under the age of thirty, but we are only in the second generation of home computer users. Computers themselves evolve at a phenomenal rate – my phone now has over 65,000 times the memory of my first home computer – but anyone my age or older will remember their first encounter with a computer. Having studied computing at both school and university, I’ve been taught by people who’d used punched cards, paper tape and computers the size of rooms. They were only one generation removed from the great thinkers of the development of computing, many of whom were required to hone their skills in the service of war and whose contribution to victory may have been as significant as any armoured division or fleet of boats. Alan Turing gave us one of the defining statements around computing in his Turing test; the idea that a truly artificially intelligent machine would be indistinguishable from a person if you only saw what they said (and the idea from which the film’s title is derived). He also helped to refine the bombe machine which was critical to decoding the German intelligence encoded via their Enigma devices, and this new British film attempts to decode the enigma of Turing himself; both the brilliant mind struggling in a public setting and the private man whose secrets would ultimately see him pay a very high price.
There is a fantastically interesting story to be told about the work that the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did during the Second World War, but Morten Tyldum’s film is afraid to explore it in any great depth. Without spoiling too much – because there’s actually very little to spoil and I will presume you know who won the Second World War – the entirety of the main plot of the film consists of:
- man says he can build machine which he doesn’t explain, but is covered in dials so looks impressive
- man builds machine
- people tell him machine doesn’t work
- man turns on machine
- man calibrates machine
- machine works
The closest analogy would be a sports movie; different sports movies go into various levels of detail regarding the mechanics of their sport, but must eventually put that aside and engage you in the thrill of their pastime. Not only does The Imitation Game fail desperately to understand any interesting aspect of the code breaking mechanics but it crucially also fails for the most part to make the actual act of cracking the codes tense or dramatic. Wondering if your vacuum cleaner will work when you turn it on, then discovering that it does with a bit of fiddling, does not make for entertainment or drama and The Imitation Game fails to achieve anything more; simply inserting shots of war-torn Europe feels critically disconnected and does nothing to elevate the stakes. That’s all the more frustrating when Tyldum’s previous film, Headhunters, did a great job of maintaining tension despite some wild fluctuations in tone.
Alongside that sits the issue of the film attempting to deal with Turing’s closeted homosexuality. The structure of the film sees us flashing between three time frames, starting with Turing under suspicion from the police after the war when his house is burgled, and flashing back to his school days and his first burgeoning relationship with a school friend. The repeated skipping between time frames feels laboured at times, and it takes an eternity to get to anything approaching forward momentum in any of the story strands. Tyldum also struggles to make some of the developments in the script feel genuine, and with regard to Turing’s sexuality the school scenes are the only ones that come across believably, rather than feeling melodramatic and forced. Both of the later time periods suffer from occasional cheap innuendo and a reluctance to tackle anything head on; it’s understandable given the time period that none of these issues were addressed in public until Turing’s arrest, but the film seems reluctant to address them in private either. It’s not just in those areas that notes in the film ring false; there are scenes of Turing running, which feel oddly placed and unlikely, yet Turing in real life ran marathons and was an ultra-distance runner.
There is one big area in which The Imitation Game succeeds, and that’s in the quality of the acting. Benedict Cumberbatch gets the meatiest role as Turing, and his track record for playing super-intelligent social outcasts of different varieties sees him unsurprisingly excel with another nuanced performance. His performance is well mirrored by Alex Lawther who portrays Turing at school age, and complemented by one of Keira Knightley’s strongest turns in years as the woman who matches him intellectually and understands him most closely. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do well in roles that don’t exactly stretch, but it’s Matthew Goode who brings balance and shading to the central ensemble and adds both notes of conflict and sympathy while remaining grounded in a consistent character. It’s right that the achievements of British code breakers should be celebrated in film, after so many botched attempts in the past, and if The Imitation Game gets details wrong and blends characters then its attempts to mythologise its characters and their endeavours are still laudable to a point. Let’s be honest, when The Social Network took a similar approach it worked very effectively, but David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin magnified the rough edges of their characters to almost cartoonish levels. Despite that, their film never shied away from their inherent flaws or human failings of their protagonists. The Imitation Game seeks to eulogise those who did such good work, but never gets under the skin of the people it’s examining, and when it also fails to draw you in on a basic storytelling level, it seems that the life of Alan Turing is one code that will remain cinematically unbroken for now.
Why see it at the cinema: There are a few brief cutaways to battle scenes, but in general it’s curiously uncinematic in its filming. What it did do at the screening I was at was to generate more well-placed and well-observed middle-class tutting and indignation than any film I can remember, which actually served to raise my enjoyment of the film.
I was almost tempted to suggest that you shouldn’t actually watch the film in the cinema; before I take leave of my senses completely, can I just suggest that if you’re in the vicinity of Milton Keynes you take the opportunity to visit both Bletchley Park and the currently separate National Museum Of Computing? Both will provide much greater and more genuine insight into the fascinating story of this particular war effort.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate sex references. These include use of the word penis and a joke about blowjobs; nothing that’s going to shock your average 11 year old.
My cinema experience: Because I’m clearly insane, after watching What We Do In The Shadows in Stevenage I discovered there was a late showing of The Imitation Game at the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds, so drove an hour and a half to catch this while I had the chance. A trip to the Abbeygate is always worth it, and I had time for a blonde beer in the bar and a quick browse on the web on my iPhone before taking up my favourite seat in screen 1. Hopefully the success of this well attended screening might see a few more later shows popping up at the Abbeygate.
The Score: 5/10
It seems everyone wants to grab your attention these days. From double evictions on The X Factor to Lord Sugar firing people before they’ve even got out of bed in this year’s The Apprentice, reality shows are increasingly loading up their casts, then casting them aside like so much dead wood, purely in the hunt for ratings. So how to keep up with the pack in this increasingly cut-throat world? This month I present to you seven trailers, all eager for you to chew heavily processed snack foods loudly while watching them in your nearest cinemaplex. By the end of this post, one of you will be fired.
Once you’ve won an award, your ability to open doors into cinemas increases noticeably. Leviathan follows in the footsteps of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Rust And Bone, A Prophet, Ida and, er, Tulpan as the best film at the London Film Festival, and also has a best screenplay award from Cannes in its trophy cabinet. The danger is that you come to the film judging it purely on reputation, or in this case that you confuse it with an unusual documentary about fishermen and trawlers from a year or two ago.
A documentary about an Italian ring road seems simple enough, but this is a film I’ve already tried to watch twice this year. On both occasions the subtitles malfunctioned, so I now need to decide whether to chance a third trip to the well. I might just take the Italian-English dictionary to be on the safe side.
The Imitation Game
Keira Knightley wins the award for the poshest English accent ever, no contest. Also, next Saturday Bletchley Park will be showing a day’s worth of sci-fi films at their Station X event, including previews, classics and even the Doctor Who finale. What better time to watch a film about the work that took place there at the height of its powers?
Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey
So I was more than a bit sniffy about the sequel, Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger, on Twitter, at which point director Debbie Isitt slapped my wrists via the social media website. I put my money where my mouth was, and can confirm that the David Tennant / Joanna Page sequel lacked the awkward charm of the Martin Freeman / Ashley Jensen original. Hopefully for everyone’s sake this Martin Clunes / Catherine Tate version will restore some of that, and that Marc Wootton will be allowed to hang up the teacher’s assistant parka after this one. Rest assured that I’ll take another one for the team if I feel the need to be sniffy again.
What We Do In The Shadows
Vampire comedy. Two-thirds of Flight Of The Conchords. SOLD!
2001: A Space Odyssey
I have a fairly strained relationship with this Kubrick classic, having tried half a dozen times to watch it on VHS at university and barely even getting to the space bits. This re-release is the ideal opportunity to give this a retry where it should be watched, and this trailer spin on the Avengers sequel’s promo just sweetened the deal.
Stations Of The Cross
My favourite new film shown at the Cambridge Film Festival this year. I’m not sure the title of Best Film According To Local Blogger at the UK’s third oldest film festival carries quite the same cachet as the gongs Leviathan’s picked up, but I’m happy to buy a tiny trophy if it would make a difference.
Sacro Gra, you’ve let me down before, but The Imitation Game you seem to be giving away most of the plot. But Nativity 3, you look like nothing more than an excuse for a jolly to New York, so it is with regret that you, and this tortuous excuse for a framing device, are fired.