Tag Archives: history

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game film posterSynopsis

About the Bletchley Park code breakers of the German Enigma machine.  Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master code breaker.  He is gay and had a relationship with a school mate Christopher after whom he calls his machine.  It’s about his fraught relationship with his superiors Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) of MI6, and with his colleagues Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode).  At one point Turing’s suspected of being a Soviet spy.  We jump in time from schooldays (1928) to Manchester (1951) when the police inspector (Rory Kinnear) visits Turing’s home after suspected gay relationships (then a criminal offence).  The inspector also hints at the Soviet spy angle. Turing has to accept medication in order to avoid prison, with tragic consequences.


We’ve had a few films about this subject.  I haven’t seen the others but this film tells us that Turing and his team, if they didn’t win the war against Nazism, they certainly shortened it and saved 14 million lives (how do we know this?).  The efforts of the code breaker Tommy Flowers go unacknowledged, as does the contribution of the Russian army and American resources in bring Nazism down.  Naturally we get fancy accents and everyone being very British and easily embarrassed, except for the licensed tantrums of Alan Turing. This film has its toenail curling Attenborough moments: the understated epiphanies where characters say “Gosh, we’ve defeated Hitler”, the set piece emotional outbursts before the big breakthrough, the awestruck reverence before genius at work.  This ties in with the ‘curse of Richard Curtis’, twee Britishness juxtaposed with momentous events, the loving attention given to an Arthur Mee conservative Britain, the clues of future greatness, the suppressed emotions in khaki and tweeds, and the ‘Ovaltine’ and ‘Hovis’ uniforms all the extras wear.  Like all these sorts of bio-pics about clever people, we have to work out the impact of their genius on their psychology (usually simplified to frustration and cathartic workouts). Ranges of emotion are compressed to lovable foibles. Like with Amadeus, genius opposed by resentful authority in the person of Denniston (Charles Dance) who tries to undermine the brainy upstart all the way.  Mark Strong is superb as Stewart Menzies of MI6 who is all suave sophistication against Turing’s unworldly autism.  Strong can hold a scene on his own, exuding authority with minimal effort.  Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke battling the sexism that preceded our own supposedly sexist free era.  It’s no challenge for Cumberbatch to play the stroppy genius, but he is moving as a hunted and tortured Turing at the end. 

The code breaking machine itself looks like an oversized Gothic coffee machine  designed by H.G. Welles.  I thought of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk in a spoof scene, as he wondered why the yellow lights didn’t flash in time with the green lights and why can’t Scottie use his spanner?  We have the usual substitutes for showing us brain work: portentousness mixed with hokey sentiment as the camera moves in on the breakthrough moment.  The tragedy of Turing’s chemical castration is skirted round with a ‘Cluedo’ detective story in 1950’s Manchester.  Imitation Game does not break any moulds.



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Posted by on January 14, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Pride film posterSynopsis

About the alliance of gays and the miners in their struggle against the Thatcher government 1984-85.  Joe (George MacKay) discovers he’s gay and joins Mark (Ben Schnetzer) at his gay bookshop.  Mark launches Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.  They go to Onllwyn to support the miners there and meet trade union chief Dai (Paddy Considine) and Cliffe (Bill Nighy) and there’s Hafina (Imelda Staunton).  The miners visit the gay bar in London.  They turn press persecution around by announcing the Pits and Perverts benefit at the Electric Ballroom.  The miners are defeated but in July 1985 they join the gay freedom march.


Pride follows in spirit from Dagenham, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and The Full Monty.  The performances are solid.  Nighy is impressive as a dignified union official and Considine provides a steady presence as a Welsh trade union leader who overcomes anti-gay prejudice amongst the miners.  Imelda Staunton is wonderful as the working class matriarch who (like all women) is tougher than the miners and fights betrayal in her community.  I live in South Wales and can testify to the decent Welsh accents in use.  Dominic West as Jonathan does a great dance routine, when the Welsh woman sang Bread and Roses I choked and blubbered.    I myself  was involved in left wing politics in the early ’70s, I left London in the mid ’80s, and have lived in South Wales on and off since then, so I know both worlds and the film brings it all back.  I felt very nostalgic.  The film has come out in quite timely fashion, in the week when Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher has been published (I liked the short story) when it’s been revealed that Thatcher was prepared to declare as “the enemy within” the Labour Party and the movement.  Of course this is a heart warming film but I do have caveats: the feeling that now that the labour movement is safely defeated, it’s OK to make Ealing type films about it.  What if the actors in this film had gone on strike, in an industry not noted for being generous to all its employees?  Furthermore, although Pride is not about Arthur Scargill, I wish they would make a film showing how he betrayed the miners: by not calling for a strike ballet, getting Thatcher wrong, and his dogmatic misconception of the working class, a significant number of whom looked the other way and took Thatcher’s home buying bribe.  Still, it’s a stirring story about a lost and lamented world.

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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave film posterSynopsis

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Soloman Northup.  He is a black musician in 1841 New York and is abducted, enslaved, and labours for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch ) whose sadistic foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano) nearly hangs Northup who is then enslaved by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Can Northup trust first a white worker on the plantation, and then Boss (Brad Pitt) to get his release?


Steve McQueen has looked at the suffering of the tortured body in Hunger, and in this film there is the suffering of the slaves in the antebellum South of the US.  Amazingly, this appears to be the first film to look at the full horror of slavery.  Gone with the Wind is anodyne fairy tale, Roots was a  bland  TV product, Django Unchained opted for comedy, and Amistad was all courtroom drama in which white film stars predominated.  When Northup is abducted, he’s subjected to a relentless beating as an induction into everyday sadism.  The obscenity of this is so suffocatingly fetid, one looks for a hole to breathe through.  William Ford is comparatively decent even though a beneficiary of slavery, Tibeats and Epps are simply foul sadists.  One starts to think of the Hegelian view of slavery, how it corrupts the enslaver as well as the enslaved, anything to mitigate the horror where the Louisiana swampland is a sealed hell of tropical venom.  When we see slaves picking cotton it’s as if the lush appearance of it is mocking us with the promise of a Terence Mallick lyricism, instead there is just the lash and death.  Hans Zimmer’s music is like a tension pulled to snapping point.  In one scene, Tibeats leaves Northup on tiptoe with a noose around his neck as the life of the plantation goes on unconcernedly around him.  McQueen’s camera lingers over this for several long minutes.  Ford cuts him (and us) free.  There’s another drawn out scene in which Northup just looks out at the surrounding horror, his face registering terrified shock and dismay that never succumbs to despair.  Edwin Epps is the distillation of slaver evil: pathologically vindictive.  His insane jealousy of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads to the most graphic details of a back wrecked by a whip.  Epps’s wife (Sarah Poulson) is insanely envious of Patsey, her cruelty just as unpredictably dangerous as that of Epps because it mostly lacks physical gratification and is more invidious.  It’s all like being taken on a concentration camp trip, each atrocity a shocking education.  It makes us look at some of those top hatted costume dramas in a different way, anyway it forcefully made me aware that even the recent Willberforce movie recoiled from showing a slave ship on its horrific ocean passage and it would have been better if it had.

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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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A Field in England

A Field in England film posterSynopsis

By Kill List Bill Wheatley and written by Amy Jump, set in 17th century civil war England in a field near a battle.  A group of deserters end up looking for treasure at the instigation of O’Neil (Michael Smiley).  The scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is supposed to arrest O’Neil but becomes his slave.  There are other accomplices, Cutter (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Richard Fernando)  and Friend (Richard Glover).  They eat mushrooms and have psychedelic visions.  They turn on each other, are there any survivors…?


This has been released in cinema, on DVD, video on demand, and on fee TV.  I can remember black and white films in the 60s and 70s about such subjects as the Battle of Culloden and civil war conflicts.  These were given a documentary, earthy style and there is something of this in the black and white A Field in England.  It’s a bit like an old agit prop production which nevertheless doesn’t really get political, there don’t appear to be any Levellers, Diggers or Ranters in this.  As if to take their cue from Thomas Hobbs “life is nasty, brutish and short” and from Roundhead and Cavalier conflict in the civil war.  Films set in the 17th century are usually populated by effete dandies (Cavaliers) or very rough peasants (Roundheads). Here we only get rough peasants.  The one character approximating to be a ‘gentleman’ is the very nasty O’Neil, he is like some fanatic out of Miller’s The Crucible.  There are no witches in this, but the characters do like magic mushrooms and we get hallucinatory images in black and white (which is more effective than colour would be).  There is an expanding black sun, the characters strike weirdly expressionist poses in tableaux, and there is stop and start camera work.  It’s all rather experimental, often to the point of being wilfully obscure.  The characters say elliptical things to each other.  In a mercifully straight forward moment, one character speaks of the earth being turned upside down, this is a reference to a Christopher Hill book on the civil war.  Wheatley’s intention is to emphasize showing rather than exposition, too many historical dramas tame the strangeness of the past by explaining it whereas if we were really dropped into a 17th century field we would probably be baffled by what’s going on.  There is a good point to this but it can look like as excuse for rambling incoherence in place of any narrative push.  At one stage Whitehead is inside a tent where O’Neil is doing something unspeakable to him as we hear Whitehead’s screams.  Then Whitehead staggers out of the tent and has a leash round his neck.  The other men start digging a hole for O’Neil as if to look for treasure, his hold over these men is like that of Musa (the devil) in Jim Crace’s Quarantine.  Occasionally it almost tips into self parody, like a Monty Python history sketch or a 1970s TV commercial for cider.  It’s like watching the Sealed Knot (which involves English guys dressing up in civil war costumes to re-enact battles) acting bits of Equus or Wickerman.  It also looks like those awful TV ghost stories from the 70s.  For all these caveats it’s certainly an original and energetic film.


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Spielberg’s film set in January 1865 at the start of the second term of Lincoln’s presidency.  Lincoln is determined to push for the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery before the American Civil war ends.  He must get the requisite number of votes and his allies, including Secretary of State William Edward, pressurise different politicians into voting in the required way.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens  who gives a powerful speech in the House of Representatives.  Lincoln’s son is keen to join the army over Mrs Lincoln’s objections, and she is grieving for her dead son.  Will the vote go Lincoln’s way?


Spielberg often suffers from musical incontinence as we get syrupy music galore.  In Lincoln the music is more restrained, but this being the civil war we still get the usual trumpet solos and military drum rolls.  The folksy repertoire is something that Spielberg has always exploited: the innate wisdom and decency of the ‘ordinary’ guy against the big leaguers, the blue light moments, and reverence for gooey eyed kids.  This is kept to a merciful minimum. Daniel Day Lewis is honest Abe, always ready with a hokey anecdote illustrated with homely metaphors.  He gives Lincoln a high pitched voice which is mesmeric as it becomes more forceful.  He looks like Lincoln and moulds into him as he ages.  This is not so much acting as a summoning of his ghost.  The distinctive stove pipe hat towers over a face growing as if into weathered wood.  The scenes in this film look autumnal and smokey as if they could easily blend into the sepia photographs that confetti films about this era.  There is a Balzacian density in the interiors of the houses.  Among all this Day Lewis does justice to the stature of this man to the point of hagiography.  In the US there is often a reluctance to examine the clay feet of their idols.  Initially, Lincoln was anti-slave, but anti-equality of races, he was primarily anti-secessionist.  He was a racist wishing for the deportation of black people.  His adherence to the black cause was a belated recognition of their role in the civil war.  In Lincoln black people are not allowed to be humanly complicated, they are rather noble and eloquent.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens and his skilled oratory only falters on the details of equality.  His performance is powerfully theatrical as is David Strathairn’s as Seward.  It’s often the case that political debates in mainstream films get self congratulatory and poseurish.  This is Spielberg’s Twelve Angry Men.  Egotistical exhibitionism pretends to humane disinterest, rhetoric wins over detailed argument.  Lincoln uses a lot of pressure to get the necessary votes and he seems to do it in real time.  The political struggles compete with the domestic hell in the grieving of Mrs Lincoln (Sally Ann Fields).  Her family’s conflict mirror those of the nation.  This is a fine portrayal of Lincoln and undoubtedly towers over the hundreds of other Lincolns from D.W. Griffiths to Raymond Massi’s et al.

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Argo film posterSynopsis

About the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-80.  America is the big enemy for harbouring the Shah, so the revolutionary guards want to capture the Americans besieged in their embassy.  Six of the US staff escape to the Canadian embassy.  Ben Affleck plays CIA official Tony Mendez, his idea is to get them out by posing as a film crew making a sci-fi movie Argo in Iran.  He enlists the movie experience of Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Jon Chambers (John Goodman).  Affleck and co escape from the Canadian embassy but can they get to the airport and escape?


This is a heist movie and a comedy about Hollywood.  There is a lot of fun at Hollywood’s expense (its image problem in that era symbolised by the dilapidated Hollywood sign) as Siegel and Chambers show how cheesy a lot of these sub Star Trek films actually are.  The film set in Iran is a grim story with reminders of The Killing Fields.  Both films show desperate westerners stuck in embassies whilst revolutionary retribution swirls around outside.  The film tells us Mohammed Mossedeg was ousted in 1953 by a US and UK designed coup that replaced him with the Shah and his vile police, the Savak.  This insured the bitter hatred of the largely Shia Muslim population.  Though the film acknowledges Iranian anger in its voice over, it still rendered the people cartoonishly hate ridden and mean, and I found this grossly unfair.  No doubt this ratchets the tension but it does nothing to dispel the stereotypes that still seem to prevail in the west’s attitude towards the post 1979 Iran (and I say this as one who detests Islamic fundamentalism).  It is as if this movie cannot help itself showing the usual decent Americans battling against an anti-American world.  We get a lingering view of how these people face a crisis and self congratulatory flag waving at the end of it.  An Iranian who had suffered in Savak’s dungeons might have a different view of this (although the Ayatollah regime easily matched Savak in cruelty).  The tension is skilfully handled, though the film does resort to a few familiarities; the besieged car, the last minute heart stopping fears in the airport, the deteriorating group dynamics staffed by the loud hysteric opposed by the reasonable voice of calm.  We get the usual details about the 70s: oversized spectacles, bad hair and moustaches, bad clothes and overflowing ashtrays.  Affleck’s Mendez is all steely decency, he barely manages any expression other than benign stoicism.  The CIA officialdom are much taken with his brilliantly bad idea (he copied it from Planet of the Apes), and it’s all done fairly well, but I feel manipulated by the plight of the Americans..

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Posted by on November 14, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Even the Rain

Even the Rain posterSynopsis

About a film crew who turn up in Bolivia to make a film about Christopher Columbus arriving in the ‘New World’.  Written by Paul Laverty and directed by Icíar Bollaín.  The film unit recruits from local people, one of them becomes a political activist in the fight against a British American multinational company trying to privatize the local water, this will threaten the very survival of the indigenous Bolivians. The film crew is increasingly drawn into the dispute.  Will the Bolivians get justice?


This stars Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal (who played the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries).  These are two film makers driven by the profit agenda, they are insensitive and patronizingly imperious.  Their relationship with the chief agitator is initially crassly insensitive but they are forced to respect the problems of the Bolivians (the dispute really happened).  The big irony at the centre of the film is of course that the film’s bosses replicate the very imperialist arrogance that Columbus and co murderously visited on indigenous peoples.  Tosar and Bernal are manipulative as they self-deludingly suppose that all human decencies can be subordinated to the requirements of their precious cinematic art, just as Columbus suppressed any religious decencies in the pursuit of gold.  There is some debate in the film on the obvious parallels they share with Columbus.  One of the actors plays Las Casas, the monk who eventually turned into the voice of colonialist conscience.  The more cynical among the film crew compare the actor unfavourably with the monk he is playing, they also remind him that though Las Casas defended native Americans he was prepared to use African slaves.  The crew feel that they could justify their own double standards.

As he learns about the plight of the Bolivians, Tosar tries to help out, he grows a conscience in the manner of Ken Loach films where the initially cynical character is drawn into political passions (as if rootlessness and cynicism are pretentious protective devices which we must reject when the politics of survival are paramount).  The Bolivians are not red revolutionaries, they simply fight for the elementary justice that will ensure their own survival.  They fight for their own water, hence the title Even the Rain, which means that even the rain is being taken away from them.

Even the Rain uses vivid images in making its point.  A helicopter airlifts a big wooden cross, the joke is a sacred object turned into a film stunt.  They get local labour to raise the cross, reminding me of the artistic exploitation in Fitzcarraldo where Herzog imitated Fitzcarraldo’s exploitation of local labour in getting Peruvian forest people to drag a steamboat over the jungle.  Extras are asked to drown children, using dolls as props of course, but the extras reject this artistic simulation of horror.  Then there are confrontations in a film studio housing replicas of Columbus’ ships.  This is superbly ironic, the original ships brought Columbus profit and fame but the film ships are stranded in the studio, unused like the film’s project.


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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Film Reviews, World cinema


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