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  • Articles by Mary

    Real Movies

    There has recently been a spate of films based on real lives and real events. Pride depicts the alliance between Welsh miners and London gay activists. Mr Turner is the story of the painter JMS Turner.  The Imitation Game is based on the life of codebreaker Alan Turing and The Theory of Everything on that of scientist Stephen Hawking. So are these films accurate? Are they true? Do they inform, or mislead, or maybe just entertain? And does it matter anyway?


    Pride sells  itself as a feel good movie for a partisan audience. The good guys are really good and the bad ones (one M. Thatcher) really bad.  The simplicity of the task creates a supremely forgiving format with rousing crowd scenes and touching, if not entirely credible, transformations of feelings and beliefs.   And if the wonderful dance scene with Dominic West never really happened, who cares when it’s so much fun to watch.  So even though this film is shot full of unbelievables it successfully creates a context where it works.  You know the territory.  


    Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner has a more serious intent.  This is a picture as much about painting as about the painter.  Turner’s physical world and his relationship to it are powerfully portrayed by Timothy Spall.  But Spall’s Turner is thoroughly unpleasant, growling and abusive, and almost totally self centred.  Was Turner really like this?  Regardless, the story of a ruthless genius has cohesion and even the inclusion of a romantic relationship contributes to our understanding of him.  Is it a romping story or even a pleasant few hours?  Maybe not, but my guess is that there is something of the real man in the film  


    The Theory of Everything is at one level an inspiring story of phenomenal achievement in the face off great obstacles.  At another it is a love story and a personality sketch.  As the film is based on the book by Hawking’s eventually estranged wife, many of the themes may be hers, but there is also a recurring suspicion that we are seeing a particular packaging that is as much about marketing as about truth.  Cambridge and the colleges have never been more picturesque.  Felicity Jones as Hawking’s wife positively oozes plucky Englishness. And the Anglican church has just the right mixture of nice old buildings and thoroughly decent middle class folk.  


    A strong central performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and the importance of the Enigma code breaking ensures that The Imitation Game is a gripping experience, but the film is dishonest in many ways.  It is historically inaccurate in terms of the development of the project and its personnel,  and in terms of what is known about Turing and his character.  The film also suffers from conspicuous bolt-ons.  Keira Knightley as the romantic interest adds nothing to the story and the internal spy sub-plot goes nowhere and didn't happen.  When the code is broken the difficulty of using the information is illustrated by a clumsy plot line about a brother on a target boat.  The two central stories, the code breaking of the Enigma code and Turing’s persecution as a homosexual, are almost lost in an array of corny side issues.  


    Factual accuracy is not the bottom line for the cinema experience. We know a movie is not a word perfect retelling of a real event. But we can hope for it to be true in some way. Cinema truth comes from the identification of core meanings, and credible and cohesive portrayals which are honest in terms of the story that is told. There is as difference between moulding and editing reality to make a watchable engaging narrative, and chucking in irrelevant, inaccurate subplots and themes designed to tick some imagined movie goers “must have” boxes. And it’s unnecessary. Affleck's Argo and Spielberg’s Lincoln were both based on real events and both made it all the way to the Oscars.  


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