Bright Lights Film Journal

Film: An Adaptive Species. Part 2 of 2: Brainy, Sexy, and Not Totally Doomed

Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game

It’s more than magic

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With Rachel Weisz as a fourth-century intellectual surrounded by far from intellectually questing males, Agora was Spain’s most commercially successful film of 2009. But writer-director Alejandro Amenabar has done much more than use a bankable star to comment on gender relations.

Certainly, the real Hypatia of Alexandria was the victim of brutal male attitudes, particularly those that still continue to oppose the education of women. Yet Amenabar strengthens the context – and the drama – by showing Hypatia as a member of a caste holding complete sway over the lives of their servants.

Bright as she is, she has no anachronistic notions that there might be a problem here. So a personal slave, Davus (Max Minghella), though barely perceived to exist, falls in love with her; and, in the end, the only way he can express his love is by stifling her to death. This is done as covertly and as swiftly as possible in order to prevent the hideous tortures planned for a “godless” woman by his own human group, the Christians.

Of course, extreme enforcements of group identity continue to produce all sorts of extreme cruelty. But in theory, more of us than ever have the luxury of choosing the people with whom we identify. Agora seems to ask, then, which is more cruel: a life hemmed in by unquestioned rules – Blake’s mind-forged manacles? Or one where we risk everything to follow our personal callings?

If that’s not complex enough, most vocations worthy of the name are not a matter of choice at all. Amenabar and Weisz have therefore given life to a character for whom mathematics is not merely sexy or life-enhancing but as unavoidable as breathing.

Watching atrocities committed by Jews and Christians on non-believers and on each other, we might suspect that Agora bluntly opposes religion in all its forms. And, punctuated throughout with satellite views of earth from space, this unusual biopic might seem to be backing Science all the way, slowly drawing a link between Hypatia’s work on falling bodies and the modern Space Age. However, this film dares to be more challenging even than rocket science, wanting us, finally, to contemplate ourselves as a still-evolving, often self-destructive species. Not just in terms of space odysseys, then, some of us will feel we’re back in the dark/bright world of Stanley Kubrick, whose own take on humanity also pointed mysteriously to who-knows-what or where.

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Agora deserves, I think, to be thought of as a critical moment in cinema history, taking biography by the scruff and carrying its newborn to places where it can better thrive. And while most biopics tend to stay within narrow hunting ranges – even the best of them continuing to pounce on familiar prey like Lincoln or Joan of Arc – it’s good to see more “obscure” or “transgressive” creatures coming through.

Behind the Candelabra (2013), for example, is another fine product from HBO, in which, with help from Richard LaGravenese, Scott Thorson has adapted his “Life” as Liberace’s much younger lover; and, for me, neither Michael Douglas nor Matt Damon have played better leads. Best of all, the movie is not so completely wedded to stylised versions of “truth” – or even sensible warnings about AIDS – that we’re locked down for all time with the Aesthetics of Gloom.

Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra

Certainly there’s trouble enough to go round; and stylistically there’s lots of jugendstil yellow and gold. But this film assumes that tales of physical, social, and emotional risk can be told without a relentlessly over-ironised mask of tragedy.

Before this, Steven Soderbergh’s reputation was based on something too genre-dependent for my taste; yet, this time, I completely forgot that disappointment will always play some part in our critical lives.

Sad to say, then, one of several recent biopics of “sexy” Science, The Imitation Game, has neither the drive nor the honesty so gratifyingly abundant in Agora or Behind the Candelabra.

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After his TV Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch was a “natural” for the part of Alan Turing, he of the self-entertaining, math-genius brain. But a script designed to do little more than pair Cumberbatch with Keira Knightley is as weak in reality as in concept.

Yes, in the early 1940s the real Alan Turing and Joan Clarke did muse about becoming a “couple” as a cover for Turing’s gayness. However, neither of them were tormented by the impossibility of romance or even by serious fears for his job. In his biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges shows two young people very secure in their sexual preferences; and Turing himself seems never to have been so naively overt as to provoke the homophobic hordes. In fact, it wasn’t until the distractions of war were over that gay government workers had, again, to watch out for potentially fatal levels of persecution.

The 1.5 -ton statue of Alan Turing, by Stephen Kettle commissioned by the American billionaire Sidney Frank. This statue at Bletchley Park is made of about half a million pieces of slate quarried in Wales. Photo by Jon Callas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Then, indeed, things turned very ugly, with a small but powerful element in English society convinced that loss of Empire – especially that jewel in the crown, India – was due to a creeping “effeminacy” which had entered the very heart of the establishment. The fact that an entire postwar generation felt little grief over the departed Raj only added to this pile of imperialistic doo-doo; and even then it took a while for homophobia to get up steam.

Despite the presence of Hodges on the writing team, this dramatic real-world background is ignored, even in the end-titles. Likewise, Turing’s adult sexuality is left aside, “accounted for” in the flashbacks to one important schoolboy romance.

Meanwhile any chance to overdramatize departmental in-fighting, especially between military men and boffins, is seized on with pantomimic enthusiasm. This also ignores the fact that bureaucratic bickering returned to more normal – i.e., higher – levels after the war.

The film’s defenders have suggested that most viewers haven’t got time for historically accurate (for which read “undramatic’) nuances. But, then there’s Spielberg’s Lincoln, the film which launched this two-part essay. Not just a matter of “luck” or “magic,” the movie is made more distinctly watchable – and credible – by choosing to focus on the last year of the Civil War, also of course, the last year of the president’s life. Following this example, there’s a case for producing a more effective film about Turing by setting it after the already much-covered Bletchley Park era. This would put it in the time when, against dramatically increasing real-world odds and before his suicide, Turing fully developed his pioneering insights into what we would all come to know as Computer Science.

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I’ve been arguing that the exclusion of “complex” or “obscure” facts underestimates a public appetite for more subtlety and depth. Worse still, it condemns us to yet more “star vehicles” – a subgenre often defined by lack of bright intelligence or anything as moving as honest emotion.

But to conclude, I want to show that this isn’t about complexity or honesty for their own sake. Emotional intelligence, by common consent, seems to have something to do with a sensitivity to the feelings of others, even where “truth” might urge a less than kind response. FairyTale/A True Story (1997) might not be the best case ever made for tender loving lies; but its contextualising references to the emotional ravages of war are handled with more eloquent restraint than critics have allowed.

Yes, there’s a bit too much reliance on the mere presence of Harvey Keitel and Peter O’Toole, especially when more could have been made of the tension between their characters – Houdini’s scepticism versus Conan Doyle’s gullibility. Even so, the film succeeds very well in evoking its war-torn era, thereby gentling the potential for hyper-rationalist rage against fairy worlds and Life after Death.

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The last example here of film as an evolving commentary on an evolving Us is probably the most unlikely. But despite its era-bound idea of the British as Noble Failures, The Magic Box (UK 1951) is also unusual in some very positive ways. Obsessive-compulsive film technology pioneer William Friese-Greene is played to a tee by the Cumberbatch of his day, Robert Donat. And for inattention to family matters, Friese-Greene leaves Spielberg’s Lincoln well in the shade.

In reality, people so committed to their vocations probably shouldn’t have families at all. And to a list of techniques for putting off would-be spouses, Hypatia of Alexandria – as portrayed in Agora anyway – made her own memorable contribution, offering a freshly-bloodied menstrual towel to Oscar Isaac’s Orestes. If the gesture seems unnecessarily shocking, it can be defended by pointing out that – realistically enough – it has no decisive bearing on how the main characters continue to behave. On the other hand we, the audience, now know that Hypatia doesn’t see herself as wife-and-mother material.

In The Magic Box, needless to say, director John Boulting has no inkling of any such physical candour. What he does have, however, is the emotional story-telling gifts of Jack Cardiff as his director of photography. On top of that, Boulting also enjoys a quite unparalleled degree of support from acting stars who, on this occasion, don’t look down coldly while negotiating their fees. On the contrary, there appears to have been a jostling queue for any part for any or, indeed, no money.

Robert Donat (left) in The Magic Box

In a hard-bitten industry this is sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “vanity project.” But, if only out of sympathy for teachers and learners of English as a second language, one has to point out that “vanity” – in its usual ego-driven sense – is precisely what is not involved here, either in the film’s plot or in the chief circumstances of its making.

Not that an uncomplicatedly virtuous moral terrain now opens up for us. On the contrary, Robert Donat often has us writhing with the sheer emotional and financial ineptitude he displays as the far from ego-driven Friese-Greene. But when all that obsessing gets too much for them, film fans – not necessarily all of them British – can ease the tension somewhat by playing spot-the-famous-actor.

Far from the luvvie disaster this might have been, then, The Magic Box offers a view not only of the evolution of film itself, but also of our own evolving moral nature. And the oddest thing is that it doesn’t, in the end, require us to damn the whole human enterprise as essentially tragic, essentially flawed though it very certainly is. For some this might suggest a cop-out. For others, it’s the best sort of triumph – one that blithely ignores “those two impostors just the same.”