The Imitation Game

The Big Bang Theory, ca. 1941

People love underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are eccentric loners, so I don’t begrudge screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum for embellishing details of Alan Turing’s personal life – you have to do some invention when it comes to his relationship with Joan Clarke, because we need Keira Knightley to be in it a lot, and the film needs to “say something” about her situation.  You need to trim the Bletchley Park cryptographers down to a ragtag band of misunderstood do-gooders, because it makes people think of Star Wars and El Dorado and everything else they like.  You need to create conflict amongst this group, because a bunch of coworkers getting along for two full hours is 1) boring; 2) not analogous to the real-life experiences of the current working class.  But portraying Turing as being somewhere on the autism spectrum (when by all accounts he was not) does something interesting: because of series like The Big Bang Theory and other popular media that employ the cutesy, popcorny method of depicting people with Asperger’s as asexual geeks who happen to be geniuses, and whose personal struggles (common TV/movie ones include inabilities to understand jokes and sarcasm, lack of interest in socializing, and complete immunity to romance) make them adorable and endearing, plenty of laypeople think they know everything about an extremely varied mental condition that affects people differently depending upon myriad factors, including personality.  On the way out of the theatre, one of the chatty people in the row behind me made this comment: “I think he was just confused about what he was.”  Mind you, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) utters the line “I am a homosexual” several times to several different people, says “I prefer men, not women” and “I have had affairs with men,” is shown in an almost-romance with a boy during adolescence, and does not deny his sexuality when he is criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency” (i.e. happening to love the company of the same gender).  So it’s partly a basic comprehension problem, but it’s also media damage: how many Emmys has Jim Parsons won for playing the lovable nerd upon whom so many now base their “knowledge” of Asperger’s?  True, the people in the row behind me are not a very large sample size, but these micro-cases illustrate the larger problem: passive, casual media being taken as fact, and dangerous ignorance about serious subjects as a product of a popular TV show.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team’s attempt to break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II and saving millions of lives.  The story movement involves slightly-higher-than-garden-variety mystery stuff, and is buffered by a very personable cast: Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s main foil in the group, which includes Peter (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and most importantly, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who shows up to Turing’s all-but-impossible mass interview for a new cryptographer, resists sexist comments, and aces the test more efficiently than even its creator can.  All the while, the group combats antagonism from their commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance doing what he does), whose motivation is to have the last word, no matter what, even if it allows the Nazis to destroy the world, apparently.  Soon, Turing and Joan become engaged so that she can stay and continue her invaluable work on the Enigma project – her overbearing parents are concerned about her being a single career-woman – and despite reservations on both sides, they care for each other and have each other’s backs in every way.  From there, as Turing puts together a machine named after his childhood almost-boyfriend Christopher, who died of tuberculosis, the team grows closer.

Despite the minor female presence in the film, interestingly enough, Turing’s biggest epiphanies occur as a result of female influence.  Joan’s ideas fuel much of the anti-Enigma project’s success, and it’s a passing comment from Helen (Tuppence Middleton), a friend of Joan’s who flirts with Hugh, that causes a major turning point in Turing’s thinking (which allows Cumberbatch to do the always-fun “Epiphany causes main character to rush out of room, crashing into as many people and breakable things as possible in the process”).  Knightley controls all of her scenes, and one of the toughest things about watching the film is that her Joan Clarke could be the protagonist of her own film (and she’s layered enough that we get the sense that she’s leading an offscreen film we never get to see).  The scene wherein she obliterates all thought that a woman can’t do this job is triumphant, but these scenes can be problematic in period pieces, and I’m not talking about her victory as much as the language used (and this was also a big issue in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire): filmmakers create these spectacles with the intention of looking smugly upon the awful ways the patriarchal/Christian power structures treated certain people in the past, without thinking about the ways in which these are still issues for us in the present.  Add to that the fact that the target audience for many of these narratives (adolescent boys) are still feeling things out (i.e. largely clueless to the struggles of women and people of other cultural backgrounds), and when they’re being constantly fed this stuff, this type of language becomes normalized now.  It isn’t enough to just show things “how they were” when you’re attempting to illustrate how far we’ve come, or how certain revolutionaries and hero(ine)s were crushing the status quo: in art, in order to say something, you have to actually say it.

The crown jewel of The Imitation Game, unsurprisingly, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which all at once honestly portrays the struggles of a gay government employee in the ’40s (and respects the real-life Turing by not showing sex scenes or taking sharp turns into conjecture/invention) and the difficulties of being that fish out of water, taken to the extreme with the personality prescribed to him by the filmmakers.  His last scene with Knightley, highlighting the development of their friendship and trust over the years of (and following) the war, is amongst the most emotional of the year.  It’s incredible that a story like this can be buried for fifty years, while borderline propaganda like American Sniper gets greenlit to glorify violence and accessorize women within a few years of its supposed real-life events.  With The Imitation Game, we have a rarity: a war drama that does not suggest that a sainted soldier – rugged, white, heterosexual, male, American – was responsible for the greatest heroics.  It’s responsibly told, well-characterized, and has the only end-title “where are they now” sequence at which I’ve ever teared up.

The Imitation Game (2014); based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; screenplay by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong.

Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman.