Sunday, January 11, 2015

Scientists Whose Names Are Gerunds


There are several ways to tell the story of Alan Turing.  There’s the fighter-on-a-different-front version, where it’s a race against time to find a way to stop the unstoppable Nazi war machine.  There’s the lone genius version, where a man looks at a world full of machines with a single use or application and asks himself “How can I make a machine that can be adaptable enough to do more than one thing?”  There’s the philosopher version, where the question is “What makes a human being—intelligence or empathy?”  There’s the outsider-in-more-ways-than-one version, where a man is separated from his fellows not just because of his extraordinary intellect but because he is a closeted homosexual in a society where such behavior is met with nothing less than draconian punishment.  There’s the romance-of-the-mind version, where a closeted homosexual and a hyper-brilliant woman woo each other intellectually rather than physically.  And there’s the loner-who-needs-to-learn-camaraderie version, where a man with a condescending intellect learns to appreciate the value of friendship and wins the grudging respect of the group he leads. 

A film that tries to hit all these themes should be an ungodly mess, but The Imitation Game makes it work because every separate country on its story map is unified by a central theme (repeated three times in the course of the film) and a central acting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, who starts off the film as a cross between Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and Derek Jacobi’s Clau-Clau-Claudius, passes through the imperiousness of his own Sherlock, and ends where Julianne Moore ends in Still Alice, though for completely different reasons.
It’s also the best thing Keira Knightley has done in a while, because she’s not playing the romantic lead—she’s playing the female intellectual equal, which liberates her from trying to live up to her looks and lets her more than live up to her brains.  Her subplot could have easily become this film's version of A Beautiful Mind, and to its credit, it doesn't.  It made me want to see a separate movie about Knightley's character (and if she seems familiar, it's because Kate Winslet played a watered-down version of the same historical figure in the much-less-historical Enigma).

Speaking of wanting to see separate movies:  there is one story in this film which I think has the most dramatic plot of all, and we only get to see the introduction of it, not the fulfillment.  That’s the story of how these people had to play God with the information they had.  They did the impossible and then they literally had to perform triage with this knowledge.  How many people can we save without letting the Germans know we’ve broken their code?  How do we make that decision?  How personal does it become?  What kind of empathy is required, if any?  Doesn’t that mean people have to become machines, and start calculating odds on human life?  Which is a whole separate movie of its own (or a play, says the muse on my right shoulder; hint hint).  But it’s one I’d gladly pay to see.

The Theory Of Everything follows A Beautiful Mind by telling the story of a marriage where a youthful scientific discovery is both incidental to an ongoing relationship, and comments on that relationship—a comment which is made explicit in the last 90 seconds of this film, in which a previously-asked question about the universe gets answered in the universe of this relationship.  It’s also very much one of those “This is the story of someone who” bio-pics (this is the story of someone who invented the computer, this is the story of someone who got the Nobel Prize for physics), as well as being the cosmology version of The First Wives’ Club. 

It is also the sweetest movie about Lou Gehrig’s disease since (by golly) Pride Of The Yankees.  “I don’t know how Jane does it,” says one character, referring to Hawking’s wife, as he carries Hawking up a flight of steps.  The problem is we don’t either, because we never see Jane doing anything ugly or demeaning.  Even the sole bathroom scene is between two men, not man and wife.  There are interpersonal difficulties, but on balance everything is so wonderfully clean and magical in this film.  State of the art wheelchairs and computerized devices appear out of nowhere; a two-year-tops life expectancy is thwarted by what appears to be sheer will power, and that deadline is never once mentioned after it’s come and gone.  This film could be a Lifetime movie, except that there’s actual physics in it.  And two fabulous performances, which lift this movie up into something very special. 

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, as Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, don’t really start to come into their own until Hawking’s body betrays him.  At which point, Redmayne becomes nothing less than an exceptional silent movie actor, expressing himself through what few facial tics his character’s disease has not immobilized.  He’s a man who is constantly trying to break free of the frozen mask of his disease, and every one of his close-ups is a feast of non-verbal communication.   

And he is more than matched in this by Felicity Jones, who has the most expressive inexpressive face in film right now.  She has this brilliant ability to turn her face into an expressionless mask and still show you what that mask is hiding, a feat she performed as Dickens’ mistress in The Invisible Woman last year (highly recommended; though since I saw it in January, I think of it as a 2014 movie).  She does the same thing in this film—when you see her face in close-up, it’s always saying two things at once: “I have nothing to hide,” and “This is what I’m hiding.” 

And that’s what makes this film a joy to watch: two actors who cannot express anything except through their facial features, one of them trying like hell to communicate and the other trying like hell to silence her inner voices.

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