Monday, February 16, 2015

Oscar Catch-Up: Our English Cousins

Today is President's Day—that strange amalgam of Washington's Birthday February 22, and the nearby Lincoln's birthday on February 12, moved to the closest Monday—and that lead to a thought about the play that Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.

Wiki summarizes Our American Cousin, by English playwright Tom Taylor,  as "a farce whose plot is based on the introduction of an awkward, boorish, but honest American, Asa Trenchard, to his aristocratic English relatives when he goes to England to claim the family estate."

It is notable that the last thing one of this nation's  greatest leaders ever saw before he was shot in the head was a story about what a bunch of rubes we are in relation to our aristocratic forefathers, who, as it is a farce, are played broadly, for laughs.

It also popped into my head because the Oscars—which I consider a distinctly American institution, like Disneyland— offers two films that focus the cultural conversation on two extraordinary Englishmen and their surrounding worlds: Alan Turin, who "broke the German Enigma code" during World War ll that helped the Allies win the war; and Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who defied all odds and has lived five decades of immense accomplishment beyond the "two years" he was given at his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease, motor neuron disease to the Brits),  in his twenties.

When you are telling a story about a real person and historical events, there is of course that extra layer for how does it stack up again "real life" from every angle possible.

But there is no uninterpreted data. All of history is storytelling, with varying degrees of "evidence" and a natural crowd-sourcing to support the narrative. So I am not judging these films based on their accuracy. The Civil War was a very complex, historical event, and Gone With the Wind, which did not capture that entire reality, is a great film.

That said, our English Cousins themselves, as presented in these films,  could not be more different: while both are men of maths/science, Turing struggled with all levels of human contact, and the enormous burden of homosexuality being a crime in England in his lifetime; while Hawking seems to have been born with a permanent twinkle in his eye.

The Imitation Game
I saw this film first of the two.

I knew only the barest of who Alan Turing was going in, and that was the general knowledge line above: he broke the German Enigma code that lead to the Allies winning the war.

I did not know at all that in 1952, following a burglary, Turing was charged with "criminal indecency"--homosexual acts were a criminal offense until 1967!!—to which he pled guilty on the advise of counsel and his brother. He chose chemical castration over imprisonment, and died 2 years later, at the age of 41, under suspicious circumstances concerning an apple and cyanide.

The Imitation Game is not a good film because its overall tone is too unsophisticated. A few examples:

The Scooby Gang
The early scene where Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) bounces in to where Turing is holding a test for crossword solvers was one painful cliche after another: she is repeatedly told where the secretary's room is, yes,  because it's the 1940s and sexism reigns supreme, but also partly because her demeanor shrieks assistant, not the serious of mind intelligence of someone with her ability.

The "turn" when chess champion Hugh Alexandre goes from disliking Turing, to fighting to support him was hookey, not the emotional arrival point it should have been.

When Turing has an epiphany and recalibrates the machine with the breakthrough move, the team effort and celebration feels like the Scooby gang finishing up their latest case.

It's the tone that's off.

In comparison, there was a BBC drama called The Hour that followed the beginnings of a BBC news magazine show around 1956, the time of the Suez Canal crisis. Written by Abi Morgan, it captured the distinctive post-war time with a completely believable seriousness of purpose.

The characters—played by Ben Whishaw, Dominic West, Romola Gara—believed in the importance of this new kind of news program, and everything about the script, direction, and performances supported that gravitas without ever dulling it down. In fact the gravity enriched the entire experience. It was a fully realized world limned with an economy of strokes.

There's no question of the seriousness of purposes surrounding the Allied efforts of World War ll, and yet The Imitation Game stayed very flat, and on the surface for me. And I have no more insight into the complexity of Alan Turing the man than when I entered the theater.

There are some compelling moments from Benedict Cumberbatch, particularly with Keira Knightly, but no best actor awards from me.

The one exception was the performance of Alex Lawther as the teen-aged Turing. He conveyed every nuance of a young emotionally crippled genius just trying to decode the world and his own sexuality. I would see the film again to see that portrayal.

For the Record:
As I said, I'm not judging the film based on its connection to reality. But, here is my understanding of some of the big picture:

•The Germans developed the Enigma code at the end of WW1 to encrypt important communications.

•Three Polish cryptologists/mathematicians first cracked the code in 1932 and built the first machine (bomba, bombe). They shared their work with the French and the English.

•The Germans then did something more to the code, which meant that the existing machines could no longer decode the messages.  And that's what Turing did: he saw the next generation of machine/code-breaking that needed to happen and the breakthrough to get it done.

•Queen Elizabeth gave Alan Turing a posthumous pardon. For his homosexual "crimes." In 2013. And that effort was lead in part, by Stephen Hawking. The Guardian, December 13, 2012.

The Theory of Everything
I had a general cultural awareness of Stephen Hawking. Brilliant. English physicist. Confined to a wheelchair. String theory something.

I have not read his book, The Theory of Everything, but I appreciated his cameo on The Big Bang Theory.

I enjoyed this film more than The Imitation Game. Its world is more fully realized and with a deeper conviction.

I found myself resisting the conscious beauty shots at the beginning of the film. Like the May Ball [corrected 2/17]  at Cambridge, with the intellectual elite in their best traditional black tie and tails, dancing under summer mood-setting fun fair lights.

Maybe it was the class thing. I haven't read much about class in these two British films, but it is a constant companion to each.

But by the time of the Hawkings' wedding, the film had convinced me to go along with the Instagram Early-Bird filtered wedding video and pictures, evoking the Polaroid coloring of pictures from the 1960s along with determined optimism.

And that's exactly what I want a film to do: convince me along with the way of its truth, make me shed some of the baggage I bring into the theater.

The story is really Scene from a Marriage, English genius style; with a glimpse at the extraordinary difficulties of the a degenerative disease; plus a testament to the human spirit of never. giving. up.

The one thing that took me out of this convincing world: Harry Lloyd, as Hawking's roommate and friend, Brian.  I always recognize the Doctor Who actors where ere I see them.

Lloyd played Jeremy/Son of Mine in the top-tier Tenant 2-part episode written by none other than Paul Cornell, Human Nature/The Family of Blood.

At a dinner party, the conversation turns to something about "he's now a doctor", to which Lloyd answers, "Who?" and everyone laughs. In the film's time period it's after 1967, because baby Robert is on the scene. The series Doctor Who started in 1963, so the gang could have been early fans. The line would have been funny with any English actor, but it's really funny given how good Lloyd was in the classic episode.

Everything should not get best picture, but Eddie Redmayne is deserving of Best Actor.

Now on to the American biopics, Selma, and The American Sniper.


Jeremy Cherfas said...

Interesting take. One (very) minor quibble: That would be a May Ball, rather than a May Dance, normally celebrated in June (of course).

Ellen O'Neill said...

I love details like that, so thanks Jeremy. [Did the grapevine news reach you that Alaric has moved to Spain, the Costa del Sol.]