Monday, 31 December 2018

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris reconstruct the life of Nelson Mandela in illustrated slide-show movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Idris Elba (Nelson Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), S’Thandiwe Kgoroge (Albertina Sisulu), Riaad Moosa (Ahmed Kathada), Zolani Mkiva (Raymond Mhlaba), Jamie Bartlett (James Gregory), Simo Mogwaza (Andrew Mlangeni)

In the 1980s, hagiographic epic biopics that aimed to tell the story of the subject’s whole life were all the rage. In fact they were frequent Oscar behemoths. It’s easy to imagine that, if it had been released 20 years earlier, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom would have been garlanded with awards for its attempt to capture every major moment in Nelson Mandela’s life from birth to his becoming President of South Africa. Sadly for the film, it wasn’t.

The fashion nowadays, for biographical films about major figures like Mandela, is to make a focused story about one key incident in their lives and from that build up an understanding of what made the man. Spielberg’s Lincoln focused on the immediate struggle to get the abolition bill passed. Du Vernay’s Selma looked at Martin Luther King’s involvement in the Selma marches. Eastwood’s Invictus looked at a newly-elected Mandela trying to use the Rugby World Cup to bring a nation together. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ironically goes the opposite way and tries to sprint through every single event of Mandela’s life. Doing so, it manages to be a less affecting, less involving and less engaging film than Invictus.

The rush is so intense to get through events that every scene feels like it has been cut down to deliver the vital bullet points and nothing more. Scenes rarely go over a couple of minutes, and most are comfortably under a minute. The general structure of most of them is roughly the same: a character will argue with Mandela (if black) or say something distasteful or racist (if white), Mandela will say something wise and inspiring that sounds like a direct quote from the book. Cut to the next scene.

This means that events fly by with little context and no real understanding. In fact, it feels like without having read the book and boned up on South African history in advance, most of it will mean nothing to you. Years can go by with a single snip of the editor’s scissors. Clashes and riots – particularly in the final third of the film – take place, but we are given no idea why or what the root causes of them were. 

Other events skim by so quickly that they lose all meaning or dramatic impact – in about 15 minutes of the film we cover Mandela arriving at Robben island, ill treatment and contempt from the guards, Mandela’s resolution that they will gain the right to wear proper trousers as a step towards being treated as humans, abuse from the prison governor, Mandela learning to control his anger, the prison governor leaving, a new governor arriving off camera, the regime lightening and finally the prisoners celebrating getting their trousers. If you think that sounds rushed here, imagine what it feels like watching it. All the narrative links between the scenes are severed – how did Mandela win the right to wear trousers? We have no idea. It sounds like a little thing, but it’s symptomatic of the problems of the film. 

This is despite a promising start, with a young Mandela fighting for justice and against prejudice in the courts of South Africa (winning cases because the racist whites refuse to be questioned by a black lawyer). The film is quite daring in showing the warts and all of the younger Mandela – his affairs, his ill-treatment of his first wife, his flirtations with violence – and there are flashes later on in the increasingly troubled relationship with his second wife, Winnie. But it soon loses these humanising touches under the pressure of ticking off events.

Justin Chadwick’s direction is largely flat – hamstrung as well by the film being cut so tightly to the bone. He fails to add any real epic sweep to the story, and largely struggles to convey the huge social and political issues that were tearing South Africa apart. As such, he’s often forced into holding a largely static camera in place to capture the four or five speeches that form each scene.

The  main bright spark in the film is the two lead performances. Idris Elba captures Mandela’s mannerisms and voice perfectly, but also brings a real humanity and empathy to the role – he largely manages to defy the film’s attempt to turn Mandela into a lofty marble carving of a man, not letting the human realism of his story escape. It’s a performance that feels very real and human – which is a far harder achievement than it sounds. Naomie Harris is all fiery radicalism and growing fury as Winnie (even more striking since she starts so young and naïve). One of the film’s real disappointments is that it rushes so fast through events that we never get a real, clear picture of the turbulent ups and downs of their marriage (the film is reduced to throwing some Mandela dialogue on his feelings into voiceover).

When the film finally ends it feels more like a sprinter with a stitch, too worn out to run any further through more years, than because it feels like it has made a point. It really wants to be Gandhi – but that film, for all its faults, was patient, well paced, more focused and (crucially) an hour-plus longer. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom compounds its feeling of being old-fashioned with being rushed and confused. For all Idris Elba’s admirable efforts, Mandela deserved better.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch saves the world in smug, empty mess The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Alan Turing), Keira Knightley (Joan Clarke), Matthew Goode (Hugh Alexander), Rory Kinnear (Detective Nock), Allen Leech (John Cairncross), Matthew Beard (Peter Hilton), Charles Dance (Commander Alastair Dennison), Mark Strong (Maj General Stewart Menzies)

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”. If there is anything that captures the smug self-satisfaction of this ludicrously pleased-with-itself film, it’s that convoluted phrase, with which the film is so pleased that it is repeated no fewer than four times. What does it mean really? Nothing of course, it carries all the meaning of a fortune cookie. Turing is certainly someone whom you could expect something of, since the film is at pains from the start to demonstrate he is a maths prodigy and a genius. But then that would spoil the romance of the film suggesting that because Turing is socially maladjusted, he is somehow unlikely to achieve something – or that achieving something would be even more special having overcome the “disability” of his personality.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is under police suspicion in 1951 after a mysterious break-in at his Manchester home. A keen detective (Rory Kinnear) suspects he may be a Russian agent – why else does he have no military record? But we know different, as flashbacks show Turing working at Bletchley Park on the cracking of the German cipher machine Enigma. Working with the support of an MI6 officer (Mark Strong), Turing has to win the trust of his team – with the support of best friend and maths genius Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) – to build a ground-breaking computer that could crack the impossible code. But back in 1951, Turing is in trouble: he’s gay and that’s a crime in post-war Britain.

Now, Turing’s personality in this film. In real life, Turing was an eccentric, but perfectly capable of functioning perfectly normally in society. That’s not dramatic enough for the film, so Turing is reimagined as someone practically afflicted by Aspergers syndrome, incapable of understanding or relating to people without severe effort and prompting. Of course this is really there to introduce conflict – first with his team (who need to be won round to loving the old eccentric genius), secondly with his boss (who can’t stand his inability to fit in) and thirdly with the police (who can use it to write him off). It’s a film-disability for a character to overcome, another puffed up triumph that we can celebrate, while at the same time pat ourselves on the back because this is a victory for those “not normal”. But it’s probably bollocks. 

But then that fits in rather nicely with the whole film, which is more or less probably bollocks from start to finish. The film of course can’t dramatise maths or computing very well, so it throws us all sorts of feeble clichés from tired old film genres instead. Charles Dance plays a reimagined Denniston (in real life a cryptographer) as a standard obstructive boss who all but shrieks “you’re off the case Turing!” at the one-hour mark. The key moment of inspiration of course comes from flirty pub conversation with a charming secretary. Running around and frantic throwing of papers takes the place of all that boring maths. 

The film can’t resist any level of dramatic cliché. When a member of the code-breaking team mentions in passing “I have a brother in the navy you know”, as sure as eggs is eggs you can bet the team will decipher a message that could save his life but will be forced to make A Terrible Choice. Of course even this picture of a small code-breaking team making the calls themselves over which messages to act on is nonsense – it’s a decision that would be so far above their pay grade, they should be taking oxygen just thinking about it. But in this bonkers version of the universe, Turing  himself makes the call to keep the initial breaking of the code a secret, and the government happily allows him alone to make the call about which codes to act on. Oh for goodness sake, spare me.

But then this is a film that wants to turn Turing into the man who won the war single-handed. While Turing was one of the key figures who made the breakthrough, this was a massive team effort, not one man’s inspiration, and reducing the victory of the war down to one (film cliché) difficult genius is the same old ripe nonsense we’ve seen many, many times before. The film tries to pretend that Bletchley Park and the breaking of Enigma, and Turing himself, is an unknown story – when it’s been pretty well-known since it was announced by the Government in the 1980s.

The film is rubbish, but it’s also gutless. Of course “fifth man” John Cairncross is part of the team – and of course Turing discovers he is a spy. (The reveal of course is due to the same old tedious movie cliché of “I found a book on his desk that was the key book he used for the code”.) And then in a moment of stunning tastelessness, Cairncross blackmails Turing into keeping his mouth shut which he agrees to do – an action that, if it had ever happened in real life, would have been an appalling moment of treachery from Turing, and reinforces all the suspicions of the time that homosexuals couldn’t be trusted. 

Ah yes, homosexuality. This film is very, very, very proud of its crusading actions to expose the cruel treatment of Turing for his homosexuality. At the same time, the film is of course way too gutless to even begin to show Turing doing anything actually gay (he doesn’t even so much as hold another man’s hand) during the film. The one genuine moment of love the character is allowed to express, is in the form of a crush on a schoolfriend. (The film substitutes renaming Turing’s machine “Victory” after this school friend “Christopher”, the film keen to try and plug the gap of this film featuring virtually no LGBTQ content at all). But the film preaches intensly and proudly about the equal rights of homosexuality, while veering away with squeamishness from putting anything remotely homosexual on the screen.

The shoddy writing, over-written and self-important, is matched up with Morten Tyldum’s flat, “prestige” film-making that reduces everything to a chocolate box. The film does have some acting beyond what it deserves. Benedict Cumberbatch is good as Turing, although his performance is a remix of some of his greatest hits from past projects, from Hawking to Sherlock, and you feel hardly it’s a stretch for him – even if he plays with it real, and genuine, emotional commitment. Keira Knightley’s cut-glass accent is practically a cliché, but this is one of her best performances with real warmth and empathy. Most of the rest of the cast though are serviceable at best.
“Serviceable”, however, is still better than the film itself, which is a cliché-ridden, gutless, plodding and highly average pile of nothing at all – a totally over-hyped, over-promoted and completely empty film that is about a zillion times less interesting, brave or revealing than Hugh Whitemore’s 1980s play Breaking the Code. Not worth your time.

Friday, 21 December 2018

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Element is flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.