Film No 6 (2015) : The Imitation Game

imitation gameAfter all the column inches that have been written about ‘The Imitation Game’, I would not presume to be able to add anything especially enlightening to the dialogue. This is, as everyone has said and the 8 Oscar Nominations confirm, a stunning film.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a brilliant mathematician, portrayed in the film as being on the autistic spectrum, although this interpretation is apparently an inaccurate representation of his character. Turing was a loner at school, bullied by his peers. Flashbacks reveal this aspect of his childhood, together with his infatuation with another boy, Christopher Morcom. Within the context of the film, it is this first love which introduces the fact of Turing’s homosexuality. Turing combined mathematical genius with studies on cryptology and in 1938 began work at Bletchley Park, attempting to de-code messages enciphered by the enemy using Enigma machines. That Turing and his team succeeded makes for compelling viewing in a cinema; that they actually broke the Enigma codes in real life is nothing short of remarkable. However, ‘The Imitation Game’ does not concentrate solely upon Turing’s professional and academic genius; it also paints a sensitive picture of his relationship with fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), as well as examining the stigma and vulnerability of a gay man at a time when homosexuality itself was illegal.

I don’t think I have ever been as shocked by the ending of a film as I was at the close of ‘The Imitation Game’, when a short written paragraph explained what happened to Alan Turing after the imposition of chemical castration following his prosecution in 1952 for homosexual acts. I was gobsmacked, expecting a reminder of his Knighthood and receipt of a Nobel Prize. The truth, as many probably know (but I didn’t), is rather different.

Of course Keira Knightley drove me mad with her hideous over-bite and unconvincing accent, but even she fails to eclipse the brilliance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing. Whilst I was rooting for Eddie to win the Best Actor prize for ‘The Theory of Everything’, I can’t help thinking that in any other year, Cumberbatch would have been holding the golden knight.

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Book No 7 (2015) : Station Eleven

station 11The Georgia flu pandemic has swept across the globe, killing 9 out of every 10 people. The infrastructure of modern life disintegrates rapidly; electricity shuts down, methods of communication falter and eventually disappear. Highways are jammed with cars as people try to flee the cities, aircraft are forced to divert and land in foreign airports, never to take off again. In the post-apocalyptic world, survivors re-build their lives. Civilisation is re-defined; the wheels of the industrial revolution begin to turn backwards, as people are forced to hunt for food (hence the deer on the cover of my copy), cook over open fires and travel on foot.

Shakespeare has survived the collapse. He is kept alive by the Travelling Symphony, an itinerant troupe of musicians and actors which continues to perform his plays. Kirsten is one of the company; she was eight years old when the pandemic struck and the resultant trauma has led to her losing a year’s worth of memories. But she is linked to the past. A paperweight, a comic strip book and a dog named Luli are amongst the things which author Emily St. John Mantel uses to weave a constant thread through the years before and after the collapse.

This book awakened something in me which usually lies dormant. My imagination. I became totally immersed in that Narnia, Magic Faraway Tree, Claudine at St Clares way, like reading was when I was a child. It is a state of mind that I rarely achieve when reading fiction these days, and I was totally absorbed. I could see it all; Arthur and his loaded shopping trolleys, the ‘quarantined’ Air Gradia jet, the Museum of Civilisation. The characters felt real and I cared about what happened to them. The construction of the plot is skilful, the author unveils clues which form part of the pleasing whole, rather like slotting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle. One piece in isolation doesn’t make sense, it takes its meaning from the context and pattern of the whole scenario.

My edition of the novel came with ‘discussion questions’ at the back, but I didn’t need to have my thinking directed by preset lines of enquiry. This book left my mind ranging across all manner of dilemnas and ‘what ifs’. Even if you think post-apocalyptic fiction is not your thing, I urge you to give this book a chance!

Film No 5 (2015) : The Young Victoria

young victoria 2Rightly or wrongly, when I was at school it was not compulsory for me to study History beyond the 3rd year. Because I was terrified of the History teacher, Miss Littleboy, I ducked out at age 13 and opted instead for the mysteries of oxbow lake formation in Geography. As a result, my overall grasp of history is at best patchy and, at worse, virtually non-existent. ‘The Young Victoria‘ offered an opportunity to fill one of the many gaping holes in my knowledge, as it focuses on the early life of Queen Victoria. I knew next to nothing about England’s longest-reigning monarch, other than she loved her husband deeply and remained in mourning for him from the date of his death until her own, 40 years later.

Beginning with Victoria’s isolated upbringing in Kensington Palace, the film follows Victoria’s ascension to the throne at 18, her courtship and marriage to Albert, up to the birth of the first of their nine children in 1840. Emily Blunt captures Victoria’s strength of character as the young monarch takes her first tentative steps in her regal shoes, discovering friends and allies as well as flushing out her detractors.

I assume the film is historically accurate and it is simply sumptuous to watch; it won the Oscar and 4 further major awards for its costume design. What I most enjoyed though, was the portayal of the love between the young Queen and her Prince. Their match was politically expedient (Albert was Victoria’s first cousin, and nephew of Leopold, King of the Belgians) but their meetings, subsequent courtship through letters, and the early days of their marriage are shown as a mutually satisfying, loving relationship. Although young, the couple soon assume the responsibilities of monarchy, Victoria eventually allowing her consort to assist her in her role.

Today is Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t really expecting this film to be a love story – but it is, and it is beautifully done.

Book No 6 (2015) : Bad Blood

Duh. I read bad bloodthe second in the series without realising there was a first. That is always irritating, but explains why the characters at the beginning of ‘Bad Blood’ often refer back to the ‘Power Murders’ which the detective team presumably solved in the first book, ‘The Blinded Man‘.

Paul Hjelm is part of a team hunting down the ‘Kentucky Killer’, a serial killer who has tortured and murdered a literary critic in an US airport before making his way to Sweden using a false passport. What is particularly nasty about the perpetrator is that he has a highly refined instrument of torture in his possession, which he uses to pinch the vocal chords of victims so, quite literally, no-one can hear them scream. When the executioner remains unapprehended at Arlanda airport, The National Criminal Police’s Special Unit For Violent Crimes of An International Character has its work cut out to trace him before he strikes again.

The scope of the investigation is wide, bringing in references to the Vietnam War, a secret human rights organisation active in Iraq, the CIA and FBI, New York, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drug deals and more besides. As well as the torture-murders, there are also helicopter flights, copied keys, car dashes, beatings, shootings, lots of rain, very little humour and even less sex.

I found the translation stilted and awkward; bizarre words kept tripping me up and I re-read whole paragraphs to try to understand the meaning. The Swedish character and place names remain untranslated so, because of their unfamiliarity, I had difficulty rooting them in my brain. I’ve never been to Sweden so couldn’t visualise the settings, there were too many characters and the plot was complicated. The whole reading experience felt more like trying to memorise the Swedish Highway Code before a theory test.  Although I did stay on the road, I rather wish I’d dumped the vehicle on a roundabout and taken a high-speed train to somewhere sunnier!

Film No 4 (2015) : Boyhood

boyhood

With the 87th Academy Award winners ceremony taking place on 22 February 2015, I am on a bit of a mission to try to see as many of the top Oscar hopefuls as possible. I still want ‘The Theory of Everything‘ to Win Everything, (even in the categories for which it hasn’t received a single nomination), but it’s good to see who Eddie is up against.

I bought ‘Boyhood‘ on DVD, the cover of which proclaims that this is ‘the most impressive film ever made‘. Really? The Most Impressive Film Ever Made? That seems like a big pair of boots to fill. When the film starts, young Mason would barely fit a pair of size 10 junior sneakers. By the time the film ends and he is a lanky teen, his Mom probably leaves the shoes and makes him wear the boxes. But ‘Boyhood’ is about growth in far more than shoe sizes. Directed by Richard Linklater and filmed over 12 years, it explores the growing-up years of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18.

This is not a film you watch for the plot, which is really only a loose framework on which to hang Mason’s childhood and adolescence. The beauty of the movie is in its exploration of what it is to be a child, but also a parent. Whilst I watched, I had to admire the ambitiousness of the project, its remarkable consistency and attention to detail, as well as the commitment it must have inspired in all those involved. That was what I was thinking, with my head. But with my heart, I was feeling about parenthood and childhood. I found this film totally emotionally engaging, touching on how we might think we know our children but, from a very early age, they develop an independence which takes them a little further away from us every day.

Like Mason’s onscreen Mom (Patricia Arquette) I am the mother of an older daughter and younger son, and the scope of ‘Boyhood’ really struck a chord with me. If you are the mother of a teenage daughter, my guess is that you cried at the ‘Slipping Through my Fingers‘ scene on the morning of Sophie’s wedding in ‘Mamma Mia‘. I did. Meryl Streep’s interpretation of losing her daughter to adulthood echoed my own fears exactly. In the same way, of course Mason knows his mother is being over-dramatic when he heads off to college: she is convinced that meaningful life is over now her child-rearing skills are obsolete. But I have a sneaking suspicion that when the pangs of empty nest syndrome strike me, those scenes from the film will come back to haunt me.

I doubt this is The Most Impressive Film Ever Made but it is absolutely, definitely worth seeing. But not if your kids have just left home.

Film No 3 (2015) : The Talented Mr Ripley

mr ripley 2This film was released in 1999, an adaptation of the novel by Patricia Highsmith. I really can’t believe I haven’t seen it before, and I’ve never read the book. Maybe when the movie came out I was too busy doing other things, like looking after a baby daughter, to have time to go to the cinema. Which probably explains why I have never seen ‘Fight Club‘ or ‘American Beauty‘ either.

When Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) borrows the jacket of a Princeton graduate in order to stand in for a piano player, it is not unreasonable for party guest Herbert Greenleaf to ask Tom whether he knew his son, Dickie (Jude Law), at University. Mr Ripley, an accomplished liar, mimic and forger, pretends that he did. When Mr Greenleaf Snr offers Tom £1,000 to travel to Italy in order to persuade his wayward son to come home, the young fraudster accepts without compunction. Once in Europe, Tom quickly ingratiates himself with Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), and is drawn into their luxurious, hedonistic lifestyle. But Dickie is capricious and he tires of Tom’s fawning attention. When Tom confesses his true feelings for the glamorous playboy, he is cruelly rejected and retaliates with violent rage. The ensuing passionate argument sets off a train of events which leaves young Mr Ripley hovering between deception and discovery.

With its wealth of emerging talent, this film is gripping entertainment. The actors are bright young things, Law epitomising the carelessness of those accustomed to wealth, contrasting sharply with Damon’s restroom attendant inferiority. But Mr Ripley learns quickly and his shape-shifting skill is the key to the watchability of the film. I was on the edge of my seat as the net drew in around the extremely talented Mr Ripley, wondering if he had just one more trick up his sleeve. My only regret is that I hadn’t read the book first.

Book No 5 (2015) : Sea Legs

sea legsThe Inner Hebridean Isle of Mull captivated me when we visited – the sea, the wildlife, the light, the people. The world is a vast place, there are opportunities to see so many different places, but I am always drawn back to Scotland. It was odd then, to read a book which begins with Guy Grieve describing his yearning to leave the place which makes my heart sing. Mull was cold, wet and dreary. Guy and his wife, Juliet, dreamt up a plan to buy a boat and sail the world ‘for a long time’ with their two young sons. I certainly have dreams like that, but the Grieves turned their kitchen table reverie into reality. Neither had more than a rudimentary knowledge of sea-sailing.  Undaunted, they re-mortgaged their house, bought ‘Forever‘ (a 41-ft Hans Christian sailboat) and collected her in Bonaire, Venezuela, planning to sail her back to Mull.

Despite my love of the sea and all things nautical (maybe its a Pisces thing), I am no sailor. I feel nauseous on a pedalo and have suffered from debilitating seasickness which honestly made me think I was going to die. So when Guy Grieve describes the ‘yellowness’ which reduces him to a snivelling, exhausted wreck, I was right there with him. His wife and children suffer too; Guy manages to overcome his low mood and push on through the waves. Accepting help and guidance from his more knowledgeable father-in-law and others, Guy learns to skipper ‘Forever‘ and discover the ways of the sea. After months exploring the Caribbean before heading up the East coast of America, Guy parts company with Juliet and the boys as he prepares to take the boat across the Atlantic Ocean to their Scottish home. The tension in the book increases as the prospect of this major voyage hangs over Guy and his chosen companion, a 70-year old diabetic with poor vision and a limp.

I like a man who can admit he has made mistakes, and throughout ‘Sea Legs‘, Guy acknowledges his errors, some of them grave and even life-threatening. He writes with an honesty which is all the more impressive given the author’s reputation as a real-life adventurer; he is not above being humbled by those with knowledge to share. Grieve’s willingness to listen and learn, his overwhelming instinct to protect his family, a keen sense of humour and descriptive powers which truly evoke the hardships and rewards of a major sea journey, made this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Plus, the beautiful cover is worth framing.

Incidentally, Guy and his wife now run a successful scallop-diving business on Mull; The Ethical Shellfish Company. He is clearly a man of action, but, unlike the real Action Man, Mr Grieve seems to be blessed with equal quantities of brain and brawn – with a healthy dose of humility thrown in!