Art and Code Breaking: Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game

As the year races to an end, the theatres are piling up with a trio of brilliant British biopics. After Stephen Hawking, I wonder who is better known, Alan Turing or JMW Turner?

Regardless, with these two films, both will be deservedly better known.

We have already covered the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and below are the other two.

An intriguing common element among all three lead characters in these films? Despite the British accent being universally accepted as indicative of erudition, each of these British characters have trouble communicating.

Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh’s film opens with a bucolic, golden image of a Dutch windmill, alone against the horizon. A slow pan reveals Turner, sketching plein air style. He is then shown bustling into his Chelsea studio, in a hurry to capture the image on canvas. He opens the shades, and the northern light pours into his studio. He begins to assemble his easel and brushes with the aid of his housemaid, who then stands by idly so he can cop a feel.

And thus Leigh wordlessly sets out the unspoken theme of this film, a question asked endlessly over the centuries: can you separate the man from his art? History is replete with artists who were less than sterling characters (Miles Davis, Picasso…even Lennon was often a prick). In this case, we see Turner as mostly gruff, belligerent, headstrong and enormously talented. The juxtaposition is cleverly portrayed when his devoted father, a retired barber (which itself is poignant) shaves a hairy pig’s snout and soon thereafter is trimming the beard of his son the painter.

Indeed, as Turner moves through the last quarter of his life (he died in 1851), he increasingly communicates by grunts and snorts. Played superbly by Timothy Spall, one is hard-pressed to think of a more perfect actor for the role. Spall apparently spent several years before the film was shot learning to paint in Turner’s style. Huge slashing jabs with brushes, occasionally spitting onto the canvas, Turner creates masterpieces that he will occasionally sell. When a wealthy collector wants to buy Turner’s collection lock, stock and barrel for an inordinately huge sum of money, Turner refuses…he has bequeathed the collection to Britain.

Timothy Spall as JMW Turner

Timothy Spall as JMW Turner

Leigh sets up beautiful scenes, such as a visit to a paint shop. The colors and subsequent mixing of the paints in the studio are breathtakingly lush.

Turner visits a photographer’s shop to get a glimpse of the recent invention. To all the Instagram users in the century to come, Turner sighs “I am finished.” He was a bridge between still life and the Impressionists. He moved painting outdoors, and worked in both oils and in the even more difficult medium of watercolor.

When Turner seeks respite from London, he retreats to the seaside under the assumed name of Mr. Mallord, one of his middle names. On a repeat visit, the landlady seems to recall his name as Mr. Duckworth. A relationship ensues, which lasts the rest of his life. Outside her company, he is increasingly boorish.

Leigh lets the story unfold slowly. The production values are sterling, capturing the period’s fashions and mannerisms well.

In the end, Leigh offers no answer to the age-old question. Turner was brutish and truculent, but Turner’s art hangs in museums and continues to be cherished. Last week, Turner’s 1835 painting “Rome, From Mount Aventine” was sold at auction by Sotheby’s house for over $47 million, a record for any pre-20th century British artist.

Turner's 1835 painting "Rome, From Mount Aventine"

Turner’s 1835 painting “Rome, From Mount Aventine”

The Imitation Game

Bletchley Park and the folks who did secret things in World War 2 have long been great fodder, at least since a couple decades ago when the British government declassified what went on there.

But until now, no film has so acutely probed the importance and the personal sacrifice of its main brain Alan Turing.

In achieving the seemingly impossible task of making math exciting, the hugely talented Norwegian director Morten Tyldum is brilliant in his English language debut.

The key plot point is the ultimate MacGuffin: solving the German’s code for all its military messages. The film is cleverly set across three intercut time periods, before during and after the war. By the end of the film, the thematic layers of the film are evident: brilliance in the face of indifference and scorn, the weight of an unknowable secret that could alternately destroy lives and save many more, the stature of a gay man in the middle of the last century.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 10.22.11 PMThe shoulders on which these themes are played out is Turing, commendably played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His gawky demeanor and inability to read human interaction are coupled with a logical mind. He has no apparent equal until Joan Clarke, embodied by the talented and beautiful Keira Knightley, arrives to counterbalance Turing’s singular vision.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 10.20.43 PMThe film looks splendid; everyone looks great in the suits of the period. The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat lends the right gravitas to the proceedings. Writing credit is shared by Andrew Hodges (who wrote the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma) and Graham Moore.

The dialogue that is repeated at key moments in the film is an apt tagline: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

As Cumberbatch has indicated in subsequent interviews, this is a film for anyone who ever felt outside the norm. It is also a film to prove the value of math. It is most crucially a superb retelling of a simultaneously bright and dark period of British history.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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