Danish Pastry

I couldn’t understand all the fuss about the Danish Girl, and I wasn’t surprised that it won fewer Oscars last Sunday than predicted. Many of his fans thought that Eddie Redmayne might win a second award. He’s a very good actor indeed, and he tottered about in high heels with great aplomb, but his portrayal of Lili Elbe (1882-1931), the transgender Danish artist, was altogether too effortful a performance, too rich a Danish pastry, for my taste. There was simply too much ‘acting’ to his performance, too much high-pitched interior strain, and much too much frantic facial twitching. I preferred the plainer bakery of Ben Whishaw and Alicia Vikander, who deservedly won an award for Best Supporting Actress.

In truth, this monothematic film was dull, even if it was an overdue tribute to the courage of a pioneering transgender woman. I am no expert on the subject, and know no transgender men or women, but I found the film’s portrayal of Lili Elbe entirely implausible. One moment Lili was an energetically heterosexual young man, with not the slightest interest in stockings, and moments later she’d faller under the spell of ladies’ lingerie and was going to parties in a frock. It didn’t ring true, at least to me.

Lili Elbe

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Eddie Redmayne

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In fact, of course, it isn’t true, and that’s the film’s gravest fault. It’s based on a novel that’s based on the life of Lili Elbe. Too much ‘basing’ can take you a long way away from the facts. True, Lili (originally Einar) married Gottlieb, with whom she’d studied at art school, but Gottlieb was a lesbian, so it’s very likely that their marriage was of an unconventional kind, and never quite as energetically heterosexual as the film suggests.

But Gottlieb isn’t the only thing that’s wrong. Almost everything else is made up too. There was no young boy in Einar’s childhood, at least as far as anyone knows, to explain his obsessive painting of a particular view, and the gay friend played by Ben Whishaw (excellently, as always) is another fabrication. Moreover, to suggest that Einar had some secret longing for his lost homosexual love is completely at odds with what the director ‘pushes’ at us during the early energetic years of Einar’s marriage to Gottlieb. It is implausible nonsense.

I loathe these apparently ‘true’ films that play irresponsibly fast and loose with the truth. They rarely bring a ‘greater’ artistic truth to light.  They are arrogant directors’ fictions. I loathed The Imitation Game for the very same reason. Why not simply put them forward as fiction, and let us judge their plausibility?

It is not enough to take on a challenging subject and hope for Oscars and adulation. Truth is more important.

 

‘Alan Turing’ – The Hollywood Distortion Game

I, and many millions of others who work with computers, owe my living to Alan Turing. Many soldiers and civilians of the Second World War also owed their freedom and their lives to him and his Hut 8 colleagues at Bletchley Park, the centre of British efforts to decode German military transmissions.

Alan Turing’s 1936 paper ‘On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem’ laid the theoretical foundations of the general algorithmic computer. His wartime contribution to the decryption of Enigma-encoded messages, building on the work of Polish cryptanalysts, and improving the Poles’ design for a decryption machine (the ‘bombe’), shortened the Second World War significantly. He was also a long-distance runner of almost national standard. It is possible, perhaps even probable, but not certain, that he died by his own hand.

Alan Turing

On Friday I saw a film (The Imitation Game) about an obstreperous, autistic mathematical genius, who fought with his commanding officer to invent, design and construct his own decryption machine. He was the first to realise the importance of cribs in decryption. He unmasked the Soviet spy, John Cairncross, and, alone, wrote to Churchill to urge his support for the decryption project and asking to be put in charge. He also plotted the path of the Allies’ transatlantic convoys, and wrestled with the moral consequences of not acting on the intelligence he had derived from German signals. Later, having being convicted of  ‘gross indecency’ he killed himself following two years of prescribed chemical castration.

The_Imitation_Game_poster

Most of this is distortion or untruth. This is ‘Alan Turing’ the Hollywood construct, not Alan Turing the man.

Actually, the atmosphere at Bletchley Park was collegiate, and Alan Turing did nothing to disturb this. He was not autistic. He probably never met John Cairncross. He enjoyed a good working relationship with a supportive Commander Denniston. He was never involved in the use of intelligence material. It was not he, alone, but the team in Hut 8 who wrote to Churchill, following Churchill’s visit to Bletchley and his urging them to seek his support if they needed it. And so on.

The writer and director plead artistic license.

Screenwriter Graham Moore says: “When you use the language of ‘fact checking’ to talk about a film, I think you’re sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don’t fact check Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’. That’s not what water lilies look like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That’s the goal of the piece.”

Director Morten Tyldum adds: “A lot of historical films sometimes feel like people reading a Wikipedia page to you onscreen. We wanted the movie to be emotional and passionate. Our goal was to give you ‘What does Alan Turing feel like?’ What does his story feel like? What’d it feel like to be Alan Turing? Can we create the experience of sort of ‘Alan Turing-ness’ for an audience based on his life?’

This is patronising, pretentious, self-serving nonsense. It’s the truth ‘as they see it’, a ‘deeper truth’ than the facts would reveal. It’s their vision. It’s about them, about Hollywood, and not about Alan Turing at all.

The truth matters. People fight for it. I see no virtue at all in this much disrespect for truth, however magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting.