Heavy-handed treatment: Benedict Cumberbatch is Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
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Computer says no: How has The Imitation Game managed to make Alan Turing’s story so dull?

The way Turing’s story is told is comparable to the montage in Big Brother when Davina McCall told evictees: “Let’s have a look at your best bits.” The Imitation Game is Alan Turing’s best bits.

The Imitation Game (12A)
dir: Morten Tyldum

Biopics that reject the experimental route taken by pictures such as I’m Not There (in which Bob Dylan was played by six actors, including Cate Blanchett) and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (which never showed the pianist’s fingers touching the keys) risk falling into any number of traps. Chief among these is the temptation to explain an entire life using events deemed pivotal by the screenwriter. It’s a method comparable to the montage in each episode of Big Brother when Davina McCall would chirrup to the evicted contestant: “Let’s have a look at your best bits.” The Imitation Game is Alan Turing’s best bits.

The film concentrates largely on the part that Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) played in deciphering communications from the German Enigma machine during the Second World War. But it also reaches back into his schooldays, when he was smitten by an older pupil, Christopher Morcom, who introduced him to the art of cryptology.

“I have a funny feeling you’re going to be rather good at this,” Christopher chuckles. Characters in mediocre films are always foreshadowing events or spelling things out. They can’t help themselves; they were written that way. The police inspector (Rory Kinnear) who visits Turing’s home after a burglary is not much better. With a sense of theatre that should find him plentiful work in pantomime season, he announces: “I think Alan Turing is hiding something.” It seems almost churlish not to have given him a moustache to twiddle.

What Turing is concealing from the police, apart from his homosexuality, is his classified past at Bletchley Park. The team he joins includes a hot-headed chess champion, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and a lone woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). To break Enigma, he assembles a whirring, whizzing “bombe” machine that occupies half a room. This device he names after his childhood love, giving him the chance at last to get his hands on Christopher’s hardware.

Codes are not limited to wartime and soon Turing and Joan are decrypting one another. Turing, who cannot comprehend that his colleagues are inviting him to eat when they announce that they’re off to get some lunch, learns to lie subtly to keep Joan on the team. She appoints herself his unofficial interpreter. “I think that was Alan for ‘thank you’,” she assures the recipient of one heavily disguised compliment.

Cumberbatch and Knightley play out this not-quite-romance adequately enough, but it is in the supporting cast that the richest pickings are found. Matthew Beard, who was the drippy tea-table suitor in An Education, does fine work here as a junior colleague affected personally by one of Turing’s judgement calls. As Stewart Menzies, chief of MI6, Mark Strong provides superfluous but not unwelcome proof that he is still Britain’s driest, most delicious actor. When one of the group protests that there is no such organisation as MI6, Menzies responds with suave delight: “That’s the spirit.” In his most compelling scene he restricts all movement to the methodical rotation of a cigarette lighter in the palm of one hand.

Performers can be as nuanced as they like but they can’t control acts of sabotage wreaked on the material once their work is in the can. Blame for the clunkiness of The Imitation Game could be laid at any number of feet, including those of the Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum (Headhunters). Nor should the influence of Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing the picture, be discounted. To say that the film exhibits the Weinstein “touch” would be inaccurate. These are blows, not touches, pawprints rather than fingerprints.

Most of the scenes have the grammar of a trailer or recap: Joan looking up from her tea to see an amputee soldier hobbling past, reminding her at a crucial moment what her efforts are for, or Turing’s frantic scribbling intercut with shots of him sprinting (brain-work is so uncinematic, don’t you find?). The film has been shaped so that a person could wander into the cinema halfway through and still pick up the thread, which explains why the same line (“Sometimes it’s the very people no one can imagine doing anything who do things no one can imagine”) is repeated three times.

A substandard biopic falls fairly low in the catalogue of crimes against a man who committed suicide after accepting chemical castration as an alternative to imprisonment for homosexuality. Even so, Turing deserves better than to be presented as a nutty professor, a tweed-jacketed Rain Man, his own code so easily cracked that any old hack film-makers can have a go. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser