Thursday, September 18, 2014

TIFF14: The Imitation Game's enigma

Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch,
Matthew Goode and Alan Leech offer strong
ensemble work in The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is Morten Tyldum's biopic of Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing, a Cambridge mathematician who MI-6 (the most discreet level of British intelligence at the time) seconded to help break the famous Enigma machine codes which the Nazis were using. Turing is a very complex figure who never seems to be described the same way twice in the books which chronicle this era. By turns irascible and arrogant and cunning and compassionate, he frustrated, angered and ultimately won the loving respect and support of the team of codebreaking strategists he worked with. He also happened to be gay. Not seven years after the war ended, he was ignobly arrested and threatened with imprisonment for having consensual sex with another man, then a criminal offense in Britain. Fearing what would happen to him in prison, he opted instead to take a hormonal treatment which irrevocably impacted him mentally, emotionally and physically.

It took until 2009 (ie after the stories of Bletchley had become known) for any government-authored apology and pardon process to begin, and Queen Elizabeth only enacted that pardon just last December, 2013. For nearly sixty years, Turing's extraordinary efforts to end the war were clouded in his official record by having picked-up a man. His security clearance was removed, his achievements rendered invisible. The cruelties of war were superseded by the cruelties of peace time - and a hero's honours are especially slim when their work has been clouded in a different kind of secrecy, one the government required. Alan Turing lived in constant shadows - largely of his government's making.

Turing was arrogant and
difficult but he was mostly very driven.
Cumberbatch doesn't just play that,
he illuminates it.
Morten Tyldum understands all this. And perhaps even more credit should be given to Graham Moore's brilliant screenplay, which gives us the Turing story as it should be told: as the sum of all of its parts. All of Turing's experience must live alongside each other, so that history, and the country, can see how he was treated. The three part non-linear interweaving of the film follows Turing in his childhood boarding school attachment to his first and great love Christopher, who first introduced him to ciphers and codes and who offered him much-needed personal affirmation and affection. These bits come in addition to the sequences around the 1950s arrest and the whole Enigma Bletchley drama.

This non-linear structure works well and builds to an effectively moving climax that is satisfying emotionally on the level of character as much as it offers the famous breakthrough that led to the cracking of Enigma. It is sometimes very hard to create suspense with a story we all know the ending to, but Tyldum and Moore do it, in part by unpredictably shifting eras and offering insights to Turing's personality. We come to know him most deeply by the end, but he still remains something of a cipher himself. Even Joan Clark (played by Keira Knightley) who arguably understood him best, felt the blunted edges of his variable moods and states of mind from time to time. Even she couldn't always navigate his intense mood swings in the relentless pursuit of the machine that could break the Nazi machine and end the war. But, as the movie tells us several times, "sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine." 

Tyldum has cast Benedict Cumberbatch to capture the elusive genius and we are lucky he did, as Cumberbatch has found a way to vibrate both vulnerability and a brassy brilliance in a highly nuanced performance that stretches over two separate eras and holds the memory of a third. I was very moved by his choices, his intense stare of concentration, his weeping over losses. He finds a depth that is astonishing in a piece that moves as fast as this one. Keira Knightley hits all the right notes as his partner in deciphering, and makes much of her short scenes - a perfect counterpart. I also enjoyed Matthew Goode and Alan Leech as other members in various states of conflict and companionship with Turing. All of the performances are strong and the screenplay is tight, efficiently managing the multiple storylines without leaving us stranded in meaning.

My only fault with The Imitation Game is not enough to change its favour with me, but is significant. It's the premise the story hinges on. The conceit is an imagination that Turing told his whole story to a detective while being detained on the indecency charge. 

A scene from the 1950s era part of the storytelling.
The intricate weaving of the three stories is
what gives the movie its depth.
The great miracle of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, besides what they accomplished, is their profound commitment to secrecy. They began work under vow of same with execution for high treason as the promised penalty for breaching. Many many many codebreakers lived long lives and died with that secret. To my mind, there is no way that Turing would have broken that vow to tell a mere detective/stranger the entire story. I couldn't help feeling that a film which otherwise beautifully captures his complexities of character, betrays that character with this choice. 

Even so, The Imitation Game is very much worth seeing. It shows us that human beings are always behind machines even when progress has made those individuals invisible. Their ghosts and their stories are part of our human history but they also create other histories. In the case of Turing, there are people alive today who owe their very existence to his accomplishments and that of his team. I'm glad that the whole story of this man has now been told in such a way as to connect all parts of him to the same accomplishment, and give all of it the dignity that it deserves.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The beautiful restraint of October Gale

Scott Speedman and Patricia Clarkson in
Ruba Nadda's October Gale
TIFF is over, but my TIFF experience is still living on in my heart and mind. People have been asking me 'where are your reviews'? Alas, I am a long believer that reflection is really important when writing about film. Taking time to think about what I've seen is half the experience of being at the festival and this year I decided to surrender to just watching, instead of watching and writing. The reality of media these days means that critics and journalists are forced to churn out responses immediately, often in compressed format, before they have had a chance to fully digest what they have seen. This is the advantage of having your own blog - you can take your time!

It is such a pleasure to be starting my reviews with Ruba Nadda's moving October Gale. She is a filmmaker I have very much admired since I first saw Cairo Time and that film remains among my favourite of all time. I use it to teach and mentor writers working in all formats and at all stages. I do so as a way of illustrating the importance of spending time with characters, allowing them to think and feel and be, even while holding the reins of good story. I also use it as a way to talk about finding and maintaining the sacred spaces of character (sacred is anything that is essential and precious to them). In Cairo Time, we see Patricia Clarkson as Juliette wander the streets of the city, both uncomfortably and then, once she has understood the rules of the world, in a comfort that appears to transcend all the realities she has ever known. That carefully constructed character space is so unusual to find in contemporary film.

Nadda takes time to really be with her characters, even
as the suspenseful events are playing out.
Now Clarkson and Nadda have reteamed for October Gale, joined this time by Canadian actor Scott Speedman and Tim Roth, in the sort of cameo villainy he does brilliantly. The movie follows Nadda's third feature Inescapable into the genre of the thriller. A woman retreats to an island cottage alone to recover from the death of her husband, only to find a wounded man washed up on her shores, escaping harsh realities of his own. 

What I loved about October Gale is how the one main story situation (ie being pursued by a potential assassin) is enough to sustain us through the real drama of two people who are caught in life transitions, thrown together to figure out how to survive. The movie is about survival - that's its story. The chase sequences, the suspense, are bonus pieces that frame the storytelling and help hold it together, but really we are watching two people help themselves and each other recover from what has been devastating. Nadda lets us know pretty early into the film that this is a character-driven drama. Clarkson's Helen Matthews goes through all the routine of opening up a cottage in the very early spring, exuding self-confidence but not always sure of what she's doing. That binary quality of confidence and inexpertness will become exactly what we need to know about her when the shit hits the fan. "Are you good with that?" Speedman's character William asks Helen as she loads a rifle. The question is one we might be asking too, precisely because the film took time to establish her character in all her ambiguities. Her answer, "Very good" followed by a snap of the load and "Do you want to make us some coffee?" is the kind of contrast Clarkson does so well, responding to the moment but also taking us to the next place, upping the ante and offering just a hint of sexual tension. (I have never forgotten a video I once saw of her reading aloud ads from the phone book as part of a campaign to support the writers' strike some years ago. It wasn't just hilarious, it was real.)

As Helen and William form their strange alliance, each begins to slowly reveal their story and Helen finally has to confess that her husband is not on his way from the city that night, as much as she might wish that he were. Because the character has been so lovingly created, we know that her lie is not just an act of self-protection, it's a necessity to her well-being; she longs for him in a way that makes him still alive when the moment requires it. Speedman is beautifully understated in his role of a man simply in the wrong place at the wrong time who is now living in the hell of revenge-baited hit and run. We know right away that however guilty he may be, he is also a good guy, and that these two like each other. The movie takes time to be with them this way without falling into romantic cliché - a brave and unfashionable choice for a thriller, where character insight is usually allowed when it will spin forward the plot or bring characters to bed. The slow dissolution of Helen's lie and the exposure of her grief are important: they allow her to have become a different person by the time she herself has to use that gun. 

One of the most moving moments for me in the film is when Helen comes face to face unexpectedly with the results of violence. Still very much in danger, she navigates being in the grip of the killer while still taking time to react to what she has just witnessed. It is riveting. These actors all excel at restraint, which might have been Nadda's middle name. It is a word she uses herself to describe her approach to doing sex on screen (or the absence of it, in Cairo Time for instance) but restraint is one of her greatest talents. It is perhaps not a fashionable talent to have in the North American obsession with showing it all. But such restraint delivers a longer, slower-burning fuse that makes for more compelling drama because there is real tension. Tim Roth's character's anecdotage about his son, while holding Helen hostage, is a beautiful example of such restraint. We have no idea what will happen next (and it could happen at any second), but meanwhile we listen to what is essentially the story of a grieving father coping with the memories of his son. Grief and its way of gripping the soul is a central dynamic of October Gale and while Helen will ultimately find ways past it, the Roth character is meant to show us what happens when we can't.

This movie is not a conventional thriller -- but that's the reason to see it. Nadda works in contrasting emotional energies always in her movies; even her early feature Sabah has it. Her more recent film Inescapable brought an immensely personal story into a world where finding space for the lost inner soul is not possible - because that world is itself devastated. Here, what she self-terms her own "languid pacing" worked in juxtaposition to the horror story that is contemporary Syria. Nadda works effectively in this sort of back-and-forth languid-staccato emotion and story rhythm in Inescapable, so that you are never far from the dark realities of its main character. In October Gale you sense that she has deepened that capacity to be both restrained and refined. "Languid pacing" leads to character depth and a fully engaging experience of character. I wish more filmmakers would aim for it.

In addition to the compelling drama, the film boasts fantastic cinematography of Georgian Bay which acts as a visual reminder that only the rugged of spirit can survive the elements and keep their sanity. This is a different terrain from that immortalized in Group of Seven paintings. This version is more truthful perhaps, in its punishing realities. As someone who herself ran out of gas on a lake this summer and had to row to shore in bad weather (!), I had an experience of cottage country which took its toll on my physical body. In October Gale, that's the cottage country landscape that is lived out by these characters viscerally: if they can survive the gale, they have endured a frontier of the heart.

It's significant that the 'gale' of the title, is not the gale of the story events, but a reference to the gale that took Helen's husband. That October gale took away life but October Gale gives life to characters who have descended into darkness and are searching for the light. The great gift to us is: we get to find it with them.