19 December 2014

Mr. Turner and Mr. Turing

Two new biographical films give viewers an opportunity to see diametrically opposite approaches not just to biography, but to film narrative itself.

A warning: I saw Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game months ago (as part of the annual Telluride at Dartmouth festival), and my thoughts here are based purely on memories that are getting ever dimmer. Nonetheless, the differences between the films are so striking that I couldn't help but keep thinking about them, to keep reading about the stories' subjects, and to keep coming back to the idea of how information is conveyed through moving pictures.

I went into both films with relatively high expectations, since I adore Mike Leigh's work and I had very much enjoyed Headhunters, the previous movie directed by Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum. And overall I did like both Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game; however, "like" is part of a broad spectrum, and for me, Mr. Turner was a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience that made it among the best movies I've seen in a long time, and The Imitation Game was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.

The audience responses to the two films were interesting, in that The Imitation Game seemed to be a real crowd-pleaser, while Mr. Turner... Well, let's see. There was a couple behind us who didn't seem to be having a very good time, and somewhere in the distance somebody was snoring, then when we walked out to the lobby, a couple of nice young Dartmouth students working as ushers stopped me and one of my companions: "We're sorry," they said, "but we just need to know — what did you think of that?" I think my companion said she thought it was pretty but that Timothy Spall's performance was very off-putting, and I think I mumbled out something like, "Bloody genius! Overwhelming!" The students clearly found it almost an impossible film to even have an opinion of, a film that was so outside their protocols of evaluation that it might as well have been an alien object.

The Imitation Game takes very good care of its audience. It works hard to keep the viewer from confusion, it provides plenty of exposition, its score sets up emotional moments, and it simplifies the history it represents so determinedly that it is, in the most shallow sense of the word, satisfying: it fits its subject to the limitations of a limited form. It's the cinematic equivalent of a TED Talk. [Update 12/20: For more information on how The Imitation Game distorts Turing's biography and the history of British codebreaking, see this piece by Christian Caryl at the New York Review of Books. The film unfortunately diminishes the contributions of so many other people in order to build up its martyred genius portrayal of Turing.]

Mr. Turner is not much interested in providing the viewer with exposition. Its narrative approach could be described as starting from the middle of in medias res. It doesn't explain who its characters are, what their relationships to each other are, or why they behave the way they do. As viewers, we're required to pick up on cues, like strangers in a new city or guests at a party where we don't know anybody. It's a deeply internalized narrative form, and it can feel unstructured, though it's not at all. It's vaguely akin to cinema verité, but perhaps closer to Chekhov's plays, which David Magarshack astutely described as plays of "indirect action".

Indeed, in some ways what we see with The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner is not so much an aesthetic difference between biopics, but a much deeper and older difference: that between the well-made play and realism. This is not to say that The Imitation Game works like a Scribe play, but rather that it sticks to old narrative conventions of character relations, suspense, and denouement, and it does so quite skillfully — it's no surprise that it topped the Black List of unproduced screenplays in 2011, because it shrinks the story of Alan Turing into a pleasing and recognizable form.

Mr. Turner is far less interested in fitting its tale into a familiar form. Instead, what Mike Leigh and his accomplices have done is take some of the actual history of J.M.W. Turner in his later years (mostly the last decade of his life) and roam around in it, dramatizing not only the known history but also some of the amusing tales and rumors that rose up around him (good stories, but unverifiable). The desire of the film seems to be not to teach us anything, but rather to let us hang around in some of the moments of Turner's life. It concludes with his death, but not in any satisfying way — instead, we are left with the uncomfortable sense of missed opportunities and incomplete actions that accompanies the end of even the longest of lives. For the viewer who has been able to enter into the movie's indirect approach, to feel a way into the film's feelings, it's profoundly moving. For the viewer who hasn't, the effect is bewildering, anticlimactic, and just plain odd, a mix of "That's it?" and "So what?"

For me, the narrative approach of Mr. Turner seems more honest and respectful toward the history than the approach of The Imitation Game, where a complex history is quite severely reduced so as to make it more dramatically comprehensible and familiar. It's odd that The Imitation Game has to give credit to Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; it would be more accurate to credit the film as "based on a handful of sentences in a big book by Andrew Hodges and a whole lot of imagining by Graham Moore". Some people have criticized it for not depicting Turing's homosexuality enough, and there's something to that, though it's not so much a lack of attention to his sexuality as a question of emphasis and detail — the BBC film of Hugh Wheeler's play Breaking the Code is far more effective at conveying the complexities and realities of homosexuality in Turing's life. (For The Imitation Game, it seems it's the chemical castration that's the most interesting part of Turing's sexual history, since it leads to a climactic weepy moment.)

While Mr. Turner is not remotely a documentary, and admittedly adds in a few events that are likely untrue, on the whole it is remarkably faithful to what is known and what can be known about Turner's life and era. Leigh can accomplish this because he doesn't feel any need to force the film into the form of a traditional story. By abandoning the most traditional, familiar conventions of storytelling, he's free to keep things as odd and messy as they may have been in real life.

Both films are carried by their lead actor, but again the differences are sharp. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as the cousin of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It's a generally endearing portrayal; nobody makes this sort of character as charming and delightful as Cumberbatch, and he's in danger of typecasting. (I love his Sherlock, but am most impressed by him as an actor in Parade's End, because there he had a truly difficult acting challenge: to convey meaning and emotion while portraying someone who has deeply repressed their emotional life. It's an extraordinary acting challenge because it requires that the actor do as little "acting" as possible, and it is that sort of challenge — not the showy Oscar-bait stuff — that separates the great actors from the merely talented. I would have preferred more of that performance in Cumberbatch's Turing and less of Sherlock.) But there's also something plastic about the performance, something that seems to me more appropriate for a comedy — I sometimes thought Cumberbatch edged toward Michael Palin territory.
Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is astounding, but also, for many people, so off-putting that it makes actually watching the movie difficult. (Or so they told me.) For me, it was riveting, because though Spall snarls and growls and mutters and spits his way through the movie, it's not a grandstanding performance because the physicality is so at odds with an inner life that Turner struggles to communicate and that only fully comes out in his art. One of my favorite scenes in the film has Turner standing at a piano as a woman plays it. He is clearly moved by the music. Then, he starts singing. He's a terrible singer, of course, but he so commits himself to the song and so lets the music sink into himself that the moment is extraordinarily complex: we want to laugh, yes, because it's like watching an overgrown hamster try to sing like Pavarotti, but quickly we also can't help but see the human being within, the rough son of a barber who taught himself to appreciate so much that was considered high-class and beyond him, the great artist trapped in the man's body. It's a moment absurd, beautiful, and sad all at once. That's the strength of this film, the greatness of its art: it is absurd, beautiful, sad, horrifying, weird, funny, beguiling, and so much more all at once.

The other performances are as layered and interesting as we've come to expect from Leigh (although Joshua McGuire's portrayal of John Ruskin, while hilarious, seemed a bit too over the top in comparison to the other performances in the film). Dorothy Atkinson deserves every award out there for her performance as Turner's housekeeper, Hannah Danby — she transformed herself even more fully than Spall, but is similarly capable of conveying extraordinary amounts of emotion and information through glances, gestures, and posture. It's a performance that, like Spall's, could easily have become caricature, but rises to far greater heights.

The cinematography in Mr. Turner is also extraordinary. (I remember nothing of the cinematography of The Imitation Game.) The way that Leigh and his director of photography Dick Pope are able to set up shots and capture light is not precisely Turneresque (though a few scenes from Turner paintings are reproduced); instead, it creates the feeling of showing us the kind of light that Turner would have interpreted through paint. It allows us to imagine that we see not Turner's paintings, but what Turner painted, and what he saw in the world that inspired him toward painting. (In that sense, it reminds me of Jean Lépine's magnificent cinematography in Vincent & Theo, another great film about a great artist.)

I expect The Imitation Game will be up for more awards than Mr. Turner, because The Imitation Game is such an easy film to like — it's the nice guy you're always happy to have over for dinner because he can get along with anybody and he always has a few amusing stories to tell. But you're happy he also goes home after a couple of hours, because really he doesn't have a lot to offer. Mr. Turner is thornier, a movie that, like its subject, makes no effort to be likeable, and so in the end is something much more than likeable: a work of art that trusts its audience to catch up, to play along, to reflect and wonder, and to live with complexities of ordinary, extraordinary life.