The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

2017 #6
Jeremy Konner | 50 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie

Almost a year ago, Donald Trump was still just a Republican candidate that half of the US and most of the rest of the world laughed at, waiting for something to come along and make him go away. And at that time, this was released: a feature-length(-ish) spoof from sketch comedy website Funny or Die, with a (sort-of-)starry cast, that no one knew was coming. That surprise factor — “a website that does short sketches has made a whole movie and it stars famous people and we didn’t know about it but it’s out now!” — is, frankly, the most memorable thing about it.

Introduced by Ron Howard, who supposedly discovered a VHS copy at a yard sale or something, the film poses as a lost ’80s TV movie produced by Trump himself as an adaptation of his best-selling book of the same name. Trump is played by Johnny Depp, under a pile of prosthetics and doing a passable version of that distinctive voice, who comes across a kid and relates some exploits from his life. There are cameo appearances by quite famous people like Alfred Molina, Henry Winkler, Stephen Merchant, Patton Oswalt, Robert Morse, Room’s Jacob Tremblay (looking vacantly amused), and Christopher Lloyd doing what most of his career has consisted of these past few years: playing Doc Brown in a Back to the Future joke/reference. There are some other people who get billed above some of those people, so maybe they’re also famous in America, I don’t know.

Make kung fu great again

Considering its pedigree, it should come as no surprise that The Art of the Deal: The Movie plays like a very long, out of control sketch. Just like all sketch comedy, some jokes land better than others, and just like most sketch comedy, it begins to outstay its welcome by the end. It gets a lot of passes because Trump is so ridiculous that anyone taking the piss out of him is always welcome, and as such it ticks over with a level of slight amusement rather than outright hilarity.

Bits that do land include the ever-so-’80s title song by Kenny Loggins; the ethnicity of the kid suddenly changing every time Trump notices it; a bit about him paying tramps to piss in a building that (accidentally) has added resonance now; some of the comedy end credits; and a post-credit bookend with Howard, who declares that “we should probably just pretend that this film, and in fact Donald Trump, never even existed.”

Indeed.

3 out of 5

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5

Schindler’s List (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #80

“Whoever saves one life,
saves the world entire.”

Country: USA
Language: English, Hebrew, German & Polish
Runtime: 195 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th December 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 18th February 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.2001

Stars
Liam Neeson (Darkman, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Iron Man 3)
Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Amistad, Lincoln)

Screenwriter
Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Moneyball)

Based on
Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novel (released in America as Schindler’s List) by Thomas Keneally.

The Story
In occupied Poland in the early days of World War 2, German businessman Oskar Schindler opens a factory supplying the German military, staffed by Jewish workers. As the Nazis begin to close the ghettos and ship Jews to concentration camps, Schindler uses his connections and profits to surreptitiously save as many as he can.

Our Hero
Oskar Schindler is a self-interested businessman, womaniser, and member of the Nazi Party. Initially employing Jews merely for financial reasons (they’re cheaper than Polish workers), his innate humanity begins to come to the fore.

Our Villain
Nazis! But in particular Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Paszów labour camp, who’s fond of executing Jews at random, amongst other horrors. Nonetheless, Schindler has to deal with him to ensure the (relative) safety of his workforce.

Best Supporting Character
Schindler’s contact on the local Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, who becomes essential to making his business a success, and facilitating his operation to save the workers.

Memorable Quote
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” — Oskar Schindler

Memorable Scene
During the destruction of the ghetto, Schindler sees a little girl in a red coat (the one splash of colour in the body of the film), wandering alone through the devastation. Later, as the Nazis burn piles of the dead, corpses are ferried to the pyres on small wagons. On one, Schindler sees a small body in a red coat… (There’s a good piece on the psychology of why these scenes are so effective here.)

Technical Wizardry
Spielberg chose to shoot in black-and-white to match actual documentary footage of the era, which was how he ‘saw’ the events. It was also shot without storyboards, Steadicams, cranes, or zoom lenses, and about 40% was filmed using handheld cameras, to emphasise a documentary feel. For a similar level of realism, Spielberg originally intended to make the film entirely in German and Polish with English subtitles, but changed his mind because he thought he wouldn’t be able to accurately direct performances in foreign languages.

Making of
Acting as producer, Spielberg initially tried to attract another director because he felt he wasn’t capable of doing the story justice. Martin Scorsese turned it down because he felt it should be done by a Jewish director, and Roman Polanski rejected it because it was too personal (he lived in the Krakow ghetto, only escaping on the day of its liquidation, and his mother died at Auschwitz). Finally, there was Billy Wilder — depending which version you believe, he either wanted to direct but Spielberg was already prepping the shoot, or he actually convinced Spielberg to direct it. Ultimately, Spielberg waited ten years between acquiring the rights and making the film, when he finally felt capable of tackling it.

Awards
7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Costume Design, Sound, Makeup)
7 BAFTAs (Film, Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score)
6 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Costume Design, Make Up Artist, Production Design, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“If E.T. The Extraterrestrial is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy masterpiece, and Jurassic Park is his commercial masterpiece, then Schindler’s List is certainly his artistic masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of vision and passion that raises even the gifted Spielberg to a new level of artistry. And like all great works, it elevates everyone who views it.” — Dennis King, Tulsa World

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“It’s very, very hard-going and not an easy film to watch, but its importance is unparalleled. You sit there for three hours feeling uncomfortable – because these monstrosities really happened, because we live in a world where people are capable of these acts of inhumanity – and you still can’t even begin to imagine what it must have really been like, to live through that, to see your family and friends shot dead in the street or transported away en masse to the gas chambers. And yet, despite all that, you end the film feeling inspired. Someone made a difference.” — Millicent Murdoch, Millie’s Movie Reviews

Verdict

Schindler’s List wasn’t Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ film, but I think it shows a marked increase in quality over his good-but-flawed previous efforts, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Liam Neeson gives a commanding performance as the imperfect hero, while Ralph Fiennes finds what little humanity there is in Goeth (and there isn’t much) to pull him short of being an Evil Nazi caricature. The stark black-and-white cinematography acknowledges the incomprehensibly horrific events, while Spielberg’s divisive penchant for sentimentality seems well-matched to the tale, offering a measure of hope from humanity’s darkest days.

What’s in #81? What’s in #81?

Mr. Turner (2014)

2016 #153
Mike Leigh | 150 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & Germany / English | 12 / R

Mr. TurnerThere are two stars in Mike Leigh’s biopic of famed British artist J.M.W. Turner: Timothy Spall, grunting his way through the title role with a deceptively layered realisation of an apparently simple but deeply complex man; and Dick Pope’s cinematography, which makes almost every frame look like a rich landscape painting, so that you feel you can almost see the brushstrokes.

That’s to do a disservice to the supporting cast, however; in particular Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s near-silent psoriasis-afflicted maid-cum-fuckbuddy, and Marion Bailey as the twice-widowed landlady he eventually shacks up with. Both deliver performances that reveal far more inner life than their characters say out loud, and are every bit the equal of the awards-robbed Spall.

Leigh unfolds the story in long takes, evoking a previous era of filmmaking — between those, the era it’s set in, and the painterly photography, I was reminded of Barry Lyndon more than once. The film occasionally plays out as a series of vignettes, with scenes that The marrying kindsometimes lack clear relevance (recognisable-off-the-telly actors turn up silently for what we’d call cameos if they were more famous). It creates a measured pace that is surely not to every taste, especially over the long running time, though personally I only found it sluggish towards the very end.

Still, the cumulative effect is to — fittingly — paint a portrait of an interesting man.

4 out of 5

Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

2016 #139
Jean-Marc Vallée | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay.



Dallas Buyers ClubEvery time I see a trailer for Dallas Buyers Club at the start of another Blu-ray I think, “that looks really good; I should watch it”. Then every time I get near watching it I think, “that sounds quite worthy and/or grim; maybe not right now”. So I guess kudos is due to Amazon UK for removing it from Prime Video* and finally forcing my hand, because it is very good.

The film tells the mostly-true (we’ll come to that) story of Ron Woodroof (an Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey), a Texan guy who loves drink, drugs, sex, gambling, the rodeo, and probably any other less-than-savoury pursuit you can name. After he electrocutes himself at work, it’s discovered he actually has HIV/AIDS — that new disease affecting those nasty homosexuals, because this is the ’80s and this is the American South. Ron is given 30 days to live. Desperate for meds to keep him alive, he ends up in Mexico, on a cocktail of drugs that are barred in the US. While a pharmaceutical company pushes a potential cure that actually causes as much damage as it does benefit, Ron begins importing the meds that worked for him. Unable to sell them, he’s inspired by a New York project he reads about in the paper: to sell memberships to a club that gives the drugs out for free. Hence the titular organisation. Naturally, this exploitation of loopholes leads to confrontations with the law.

That’s just some of what’s going on, anyway, because there’s also Ron’s growing acceptance of the community he finds himself a part of, especially after he’s ostracised from his former friends who assume he’s gay; there’s his business partner, trans woman Rayon (an also-Oscar-winning Jared Leto), who has drugs and familial problems of her own; and the doctor (Jennifer Garner) who battles her conscience over the drug trials and Ron’s less-than-scientific but effective methods. If this makes Dallas Buyers Club sound unfocused, it’s more that it’s got a lot of different aspects to examine. It’s not just about narrating what really happened, either, because Leto and Garner’s characters are fictional.

So, some would argue, is Ron Woodroof — this version, anyway. For one thing, reportedly the real Woodroof was widely believed to be bisexual by people who knew him, so depicting him as a raging homophobe (who contracted HIV from a druggie prostitute) is completely inaccurate. I suppose that just calls into question how far one can go when adapting reality into fiction while still claiming it’s a true story, because in some respects it’s more interesting to follow the film’s version of Ron, who has to come to terms with a whole new world. This has led to complaints about making a homophobe the hero of the story, but, again, I’d argue this is part of the point: Ron overcomes his homophobia, learns how prejudiced and wrong he’s been (without quite dragging the whole movie down to Moral Lesson Of The Week levels). Where’s the journey if he was a nice, understanding guy from the start?

McConaughey is very good as Ron, though I’d wager he won the Oscar as much for his extreme weight loss as his actual acting. He was up the same year as Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, which I’d argue is an even more nuanced, interesting, and affecting performance. Dallas Buyers Club is not short of emotional heft, mind, but much of it is shouldered by Leto. He may come across as a right tool in real life, especially with his Method Joker antics recently, but that methodology does at least mean he’s committed to his performance here. He’s done the weight loss thing too, but there’s more to it than that. To this layperson, he’s very convincing as a trans woman (again, there have been complaints that it’s too stereotypical); but even leaving that aside, it’s the universal humanity he brings to a person suffering with a death sentence, and rejection by their own family, that tugs the heartstrings.

Some reviews emphasise the film’s ultra-low budget, though as it cost $5 million I’m sure there are other filmmakers who would dispute the idea of that being cheap! It results in some weak CGI to depict Ron’s worldwide travels in search of new drug sources, but the point is conveyed nonetheless. Otherwise, I don’t hold with complaints that the movie looks amateurish. It’s not slick or glossy, but that level of realism, almost grittiness, fits the tale. Apparently the budget for makeup was just $250, and the film still won an Oscar for it, which goes to show… something. I mean, the other nominees were Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, so it probably doesn’t show much (just which one of those three sounds most like an Oscar winner, really).

For all the heaviness of the topics it touches on, the film isn’t without the humour that made its trailer so attractive. That said, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen most of that material, and in a more condensed and highlighted form, too. It almost makes it look like a heist movie — how this clever chappy pulled the wool over the authorities’ eyes with his vicar costumes and amusing way of filling out forms — but that’s just a small part of the film; and, actually, those tricks often go wrong or flat out don’t work, which is not the heist movie way.

Dallas Buyers Club is very unpopular in some circles for their perception of its treatment of the issues and people involved, but while their voices may be loud (one such review is the second most-liked on Letterboxd) they’re also in the minority (it has 8.0 on IMDb, which is just outside the range of the Top 250, and the ratings graph on Letterboxd errs heavily to 4-out-of-5 territory too). Perhaps with time we’ll all come to think of it that way, and it will begin to look like a product of an era before the mainstream fully understood certain issues. For the time being, it’s a powerful yet still enjoyable drama.

4 out of 5

* It was scheduled to be removed next Thursday, hence why I was helpfully posting this review today, but it actually went yesterday. One of the worst things about Amazon Video is trying to find out when they’re going to remove stuff from Prime. ^

Big Eyes (2014)

2016 #39
Tim Burton | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Big EyesAfter a smidgen of early awards buzz that pegged it as a dark-horse major contender (which obviously never materialised into anything), everyone seemed to stop talking about Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s latest, and the first thing he’s made in over a decade that doesn’t instantly strike you as an obvious Burton-esque choice.

It’s the true story of Margaret (Amy Adams), an amateur artist who ends up marrying Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who also dabbles in painting. He manages to get their art publicly displayed, but while people don’t care about his French scenes, they love her huge-eyed waifs. For various reasons Keane claims them as his own, and before the couple know it the paintings are a pop culture phenomenon du jour, loved by the masses but despised by the critical establishment. Nonetheless, Keane reaps the fame and fortune of ‘his’ art — which Margaret is stuck at home churning out for her increasingly demanding and abusive husband…

It’s certainly a bizarre tale, and given even more of an otherworldly edge in Burton’s hands. He’s reined in here compared to his more fantastical leaps, but even when he does the real world it’s not quite our world (see also: Ed Wood). Nonetheless, it makes what could have been a slight tale more interesting than it would’ve been as a straight-up clean-cut biopic, even though it still runs a little long in the middle — the most interesting parts are the “how did that come about?!” setup and the famed denouement, where a court case culminates in a paint-off.

There’s thematic meat that could’ve filled the sandwich between those establishing and climactic, er, pieces of bread(?) — the tastes of critics versus the general public, and the disparity that exists there and what it means; or the inbuilt sexism of the era (though maybe everyone thought Mad Men had that covered) — but I’m not sure Burton was interested in such matters, at least not as much as he is in the kooky tale of some unusual characters and the odd turns of events that shape their lives.

It makes Big Eyes a very watchable and often diverting film, but not one to linger long in a viewer’s affections. A bit like the transitory impact of an artistic fad, then, which is at least apt.

4 out of 5

The Imitation Game (2014)

2016 #125
Morten Tyldum | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
8 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design.



The Imitation GameAlan Turing was a war hero: he led a team of cryptologists who managed to break the Germans’ Enigma encryption, thereby giving the Allies access to tonnes of vital information that (historians estimate) helped shorten the war by up to four years. This information was beyond top secret — so much so that they created a new designation for it, “ultra secret” — so when the war was over, Turing & co’s contribution went unrecognised for decades. Alan Turing was also a homosexual in an era when that was illegal. When he was caught, he was sentenced to chemical castration, which caused (or at least contributed) to him taking his own life. Fine way to treat a war hero, but that’s what you get with discriminatory attitudes.

Discrimination is surely one of the major themes of The Imitation Game, a film that it’s apparently easy to mistake for a drama about the deciphering of Enigma, but which is really a Turing biopic. It takes place across three eras: the 1920s, when Turing (played by Alex Lawther) was a bullied schoolboy; the war years, when Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) faced discrimination across the board, including a commanding officer who thought he was a Soviet spy and teammates who flat out didn’t like him; and the 1950s, when Turing (played by Cumberbatch in gentle older-age make-up) is uncovered as gay and gets the persecution already discussed. As if that wasn’t enough, the best person he recruits for his team during the war is female (played by Keira Knightley), who of course is also pre-judged by some as capable of nothing more than being a dimwitted secretary.

The screenplay by newcomer Graham Moore topped the Black List in 2011, so it’s probably of little surprise that it went on to win an Oscar, but I think it’s fair to say its quality, while good, isn’t that good. The use of three concurrently-told timelines seems to be too much for Moore and/or director Morten Tyldum to handle at times, occasionally flitting to a different era with little purpose beyond “it’s about time we told more of that storyline”. That’s not to say a wholly chronological telling would’ve been more effective — though perhaps it would’ve placated critical viewers who expected (and retrospectively demand) a cryptography-based wartime thriller — but the period juggling clouds the point as often as it illuminates it.

Regardless, it blusters through with a relatively brisk pace (for what is essentially a heritage drama), supported by several excellent performances. Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch is the obvious headline — he’s Alan Turing in the Alan Turing biopic so of course he is, but it’s a very strong performance. His Turing is surely somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which at best has speculative historical basis, but Cumberbatch embodies well that social awkwardness with hidden inner genius. It would’ve been easy for him to slip into familiar traits from that other antisocial clever-clogs he plays, Sherlock Holmes, but at worst there are only vague and infrequent nudges to our memory of that performance. Rather, I’d argue he fully subsumes himself into this role. Surely that Oscar would’ve been his were it not for Eddie Redmayne’s even more remarkable turn as Stephen Hawking. (Well, Oscar voters might’ve plumped for Michael Keaton instead, but they’d’ve been wrong.)

Also up for the golden man was Knightley, who does give one of her better turns as Turing’s sort-of-sidekick. The pair have a fairly complex relationship — both halves are key to conveying that, and they both do. At least as remarkable as either is young Alex Lawther, who arguably gets the film’s stand-out acting moment in his final scene, where a tumult of emotion is contained beneath a stiff-upper-lip surface in a tight close-up. On the strength of this, an actor to watch out for. The rest of the cast don’t get the same depth of material, but Charles Dance and Mark Strong provide exceptional value, as always, and Rory Kinnear does his best to bring some nuance and interest to a part he’s overqualified for.

To return to the issue of the film’s reception, some people seem to be angry with or offended by the notion that the war was won as much — maybe even more — by men in rooms breaking codes than by soldiers on the ground doing the actual fighting. However, I can’t help but think that’s actually one of the points the film is making — that soldiers are the obvious ‘heroes’, because they’re there doing the shooting, but the people behind the scenes telling them where to go do that shooting are just as important to the overall victory. I mean, if you watched this film and still think the boots on the ground are the only thing that won the war, and by extension that intelligence isn’t all that important, then maybe you missed something.

Perhaps that just stems from a frustration at some of the film’s other issues. It clearly has a flexible relationship with historical accuracy — well, what biopic doesn’t? Without wanting to spoil plot developments, some viewers feel the film suggesting Turing knew of the spy at Bletchley Park is insulting to his memory, because in real-life he didn’t even know the individual. Alternatively, is it not a way to integrate that part of the Enigma story into a film that otherwise wouldn’t have a satisfactory way to touch on it? Everyone’s mileage will vary on whether that should’ve been done or not.

And let’s not even get into opinions on how the film dealt with Turing’s homosexuality, which swing wildly between “it was just a footnote, why didn’t it get more attention?!” and “why did they allow that to dominate a film about codebreaking?!”

There’s no denying that The Imitation Game contains an interesting story about an important aspect of the war, starring a fascinating and complex central character. How well it handles those aspects if more a matter for debate, as it doesn’t develop some elements as well as it perhaps should have, and the heritage stylings always turn some off. If you ignore or gloss over some of those faults and take the film at face value, it’s a 5-star effort with a well-told primary narrative and strong performances. If you do listen to the niggling faults and the “what could have been”s, it sinks back down a little.

Without meaning to sound too judgemental (though when has that ever stopped me?), those factors making me think this is the kind of film “normal people” will probably love a lot more than “film fans” — which probably explains why it’s in the IMDb Top 250 but all the most-liked reviews on Letterboxd have exceptionally low scores. Personally, I’m going to side with the populous: not everything has to be a groundbreaking feat of Cinema to be a story worth telling and told well, and if it is indeed some kind of “historical revisionism” to say that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and the way Turing was treated post-war was horrendous, well, I’m OK with that revisionism.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Imitation Game is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow.