An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.
So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.
I´ve recently returned from three weeks of teaching in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and I wanted to return with a nice easy watch. Shazam! obliges. The latest DC movie follows a teenage orphan given the ability to transform into a thirty-something Action Man at the shout of a single word. It’s light, colourful, a little corporate but what can you do? It’s just what a jetlagged man needs.
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i catch myself watching the original Kingsman on TV now with more pleasure than I remember upon the first viewing. I re-see the odd snippet and it seems elegant, fun, attractive. Watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle reminds me that this partial re-viewing is also a partial forgetting: the sexism, the crude anal jokes with the captive princess etc. But nothing about the first film prepared me for how crude, manipulative and exploitative this sequel is. Cynical too, not only in the relentless product placement but in the lassoing in of American stars to pave the way for the success the original didn’t quite achieve there. Thus we see snippets of Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and what what has until now been my favourite presence in the US audiovisual landscape, Pedro Pascal (probably best known from Narcos), none of them except for the latter offered much of a character or even a chance to shine. How much money do these movie stars need anyway? And if the filmmakers brought them in to make the shit shine, they failed. Julianne Moore is the only star who makes anything of the part played. And Elton John — who deserves a medal for being so open and game — is the only one the filmmakers succeed in getting some good jokes out of. If the idea behind casting these stars was so that the movie could sell better in the States, then the film is not only cynical but stupid. You can’t cast all the Americans as villains, secondary characters or merely inept and have that be your anchor in their market. But here we are, talking about audiences, markets, stars, what might sell. Yet, one look at how the action scenes are filmed — all so CGI that any human skill, effort, danger, and grace evades one’s consciousness — and the crass ineptitude of the whole project is visible to all. It’s like all the marketing and selling opportunities have been given way more thought than story, characters, and the staging of exciting adventure with slinky gadgets etc, ie. all that we want out of a movie like this. They’ve thought so much about the selling that they forgot to come up with something anyone would want to buy. They should all be ashamed of themselves.
In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a secretive, repressed, and recessive character transparent and emotionally accessible on various levels simultaneously. He also makes a socially inept and unlikeable character charming without watering down his worst qualities. It’s a truly great performance: a tour de force. I don’t think the film itself is good, but it works, and is very moving, particularly at the end, where one feels the whole audience collectively well up.
Some aspects of the film are unsatisfying. I understand how the three-act structure, which enables the film to focus on Bletchley Park and the various obstacles to breaking the enigma code, whilst simultaneously going back to his past to explain his character (how he is OCD, how he was capable of great love, how that love was lost and how he learned to be secretive) and to the future (to explain the causes and context of his arrest, his sentence and his suicide) is an attractive proposition to a screenwriter: it does make the story flow; it enables the narrative to travel through time whilst retaining the film’s focus — the Bletchley Park section — as a seeming constant present. However, it also makes the film seem too pat. People are messier than machines, there is no one ‘key’ to people’s character.
The best illustration of the film’s worst flaw is perhaps the character of Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley. Knightley is a bit strained in the final sequence and not photographed to advantage there but she is lively, charming and natural in most of the film, and she is not the problem; indeed, few could have done as well with the role. The problem is that the role as written and filmed is not a person but a function. She’s there to demonstrate sexism in British society through custom and convention (her parents initially won’t allow her to work at Bletchley because it wouldn’t be ‘decorous’ and then they call her home because she’s twenty-five and single) and structure (she’s not initially allowed to sit for the recruiting test because she’s a woman).
Clarke is made to be almost as intelligent as Turing but better socialized; the function of the character is also to act in relation to and in contrast with Turing. Thus, although the film is at pains to depict the sexism Clarke suffers from, by the end she finds love and gets a husband whilst continuing with her career, her definition of having it all, whilst he who has helped save 14 million lives is arrested, castrated and driven to suicide for being homosexual. Clarke is an argument on oppression and a figure through which to convey its various hierarchies in the middle of the last century. She’s not a person. That she vaguely comes across as one is due to what Knightley as star and actor brings to the role: an elegant, glamorous, vivacity shot through with intelligence that somehow seems not too far removed from what might be deemed real but much more glamorous..
The film does offer many pleasures: an excellent Charles Dance as commanding obstruction to Turing’s project; Mark Strong brings a twinge of the nocturnal — heartlessness with a potential for cruelty — and considerable strength to his role — he makes the character of Stewart Menzies seems an embodiment of state-sanctioned deception; connoisseurs might also appreciate the sight of Steve Waddington, previously Jarman’s Edward II, the king who sacrificed his throne for the man he loved, here cast as the gruff Manchester copper who seals Turing’s doom. Aside from the performances, there’s nothing exceptional about the film but it’s adequately directed; it looks good and moves well. However, the greatest achievement of The Imitation Game is that it succeeds in making audiences cry for Turing, and by implication for all those treated equally unjustly half a century ago.
It’s not too long ago that I felt contemporary cinema had giving up on making audiences cry, thus abdicating one of the greatest functions of cinema and denying audiences one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, this is precisely what some of the most memorable and important films of the year have succeeded in doing: 12 Years a Slave and Interstellar are but two and divergent types of ‘weepies’. Moreover, seeing The Imitation Game made me realise that British Cinema has been markedly successful in eliciting tears: Philomena, Pride and now The Imitation Game, three of the biggest hits of the year, have all aimed for tears (as well as laughter) and audiences have responded as if those tears were on tap and ready to flow subject to a tactful prompt.
At heart these recent British films make us cry because they’re melodramas that dramatise the gap between individual desires and proscribed ways of being, that looks at the past and measures the gap between what was and what is just. They structure their stories around differentials in knowledge not just between characters in the story, such as the difference between what the headmaster knows about Turing and his friend Christopher and what we know, but also differences in knowledge between what the characters think and accept of certain issues such as homosexuality and what we, the audience, think and accept now. These films are important not only because they make us cry or because they make us cry about these characters but because they also make us cry at injustice.
Although Philomena, Pride and The Imitation Game, put homosexual identity at desire at the core of the narrative, they’re not gay films per se, they’re not predominantly addressed to a gay audience. They draw on a wide and accessible frame of reference that most anyone can understand. They’re part of the stories a culture tells itself about what it was, what it is, what it should be. And in telling these stories in these ways, in making ‘us’ cry about the injustices ‘we’ did to ‘them’, they re-insert gay men and women into the national narrative, they mark a move from ‘them’ to ‘us’. Homosexuality is thus re-imagined, inserted and made central to a cultural and national identity, shifted from a type of otherness and through tears re-inscribed into a national ‘we’. It is not anything I could once have imagined in my lifetime and quite something to experience.