‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *