Monday, February 15, 2016

Two films

The second half of February is a time that I love as our satellite tv supplier broadcasts many films which were nominated for Oscars. Some of the films are new (nominations from 2014 onwards) and some are old (some are very old!), but they're all high quality. An example would be Casablanca: although I've seen this a few times (not surprising, considering that 'Play it again, Sam' is one of my favourite films), I haven't seen it for years, and this time I was able to record it for posterity.

Two films which I saw on Saturday had, at least on paper, several things in common:
  • Keira Knightley appears in both, as does Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Both are set in Britain during 1935-1945
  • Both are based on books
  • Both were nominated for Oscars
The first film was 'Atonement', which is based on a novel by Ian McEwan (which I have on my Kindle, but have not yet read), whereas the second, 'The imitation game' is based on the biography of Alan Turing, written by Andrew Hodges. I bought this book maybe 20 years ago and know it very well.

Atonement: I didn't have any expectations from this film, and to be honest, I didn't watch it very closely at first. After what might have been a dodgy start, the film turned out to be very good in several respects. There is a scene set on Dunkirk beach which lasts for about ten minutes which seems to be shot in one go (without edits or cuts): not the sort of thing one sees these days. I had a brief look at the book, and from the little that I have read so far, the film seems to be a fairly accurate translation of the book (obviously the book is deeper and delves into the characters' thoughts and motivations). I shall enjoy reading this book.

On the other hand, I was deeply disappointed by 'The imitation game'. Whilst the gross facts are correct (Turing is a mathematician who was educated at Sherborne School and Cambridge, then spent his war years at Bletchley Park and died in Manchester in the early 50s), almost everything else is wrong, wrong, WRONG! The scenes at Bletchley are extremely annoying as that's not how they happened. What annoys me is that someone who does not know the story will assume that this film is the truth - nothing could be more wrong.

The entire sequence of events is upside down: Turing almost immediately begins to build his decoding machine (with the opposition of his colleagues) and only later does the penny drop that the messages that they are trying to decode have words which repeat frequently ('Heil Hitler'), which could be used as cribs. In fact, the Poles had done some work before the war in decoding Enigma message via semi-mechanical means; all kinds of cribs were used in order to simplify the decoding work. On later on were the bombes used to decode, and these were a joint effort, building on the original Polish work. If I were Hugh Alexander, I would be deeply offended by my portrayal in this film.

It's interesting to note that the actor playing Alexander - Matthew Goode - and the actor playing John Cairncross - Allen Leech - both appear in the sixth series of 'Downton Abbey', which is being broadcast here on Thursday nights. Cairncross may have been at Bletchley Park, but he didn't work with Turing and MI6 did not know until several years after the war's end that he was a Soviet spy.

In the film, Turing et al. discuss how much information they can release without raising the Germans' suspicions that Enigma has been broken. There is a documented case in which Prime Minister Churchill became aware of a planned bombing raid on Coventry via Enigma decrypts ("Ultra") but decided not to intervene in order to continue breaking and reading Enigma. I'm sure that Turing and his colleagues did not make any decisions regarding the distribution of the Ultra material: in fact, they didn't decode the messages themselves but rather figured out what the daily key was. There is  a crossover with Neal Stephenson's "Crytonomicon", which features Turing as one of his many characters: unit 2882 was formed in order to disperse German suspicions that Enigma had been broken.

The film also ignores the fact that as the war progressed, Turing had less and less to do with Enigma. Instead, he developed with the help of Post Office engineers what would today be called  an Analog To Digital encoder, which eventually allowed Churchill and Roosevelt (later Attlee and Truman) to have discussions via the telephone in the knowledge that no one could eavesdrop. Such an encoder (and equivalent decoder) is in everyday use with our smartphones.

The IMDB goofs page lists several anachronisms in terms of speech; one which they missed was when Turing realises that Cairncross is a spy; Cairncross says to the other person present in the room "Can Alan and I have a minute, please". No one spoke like that in the 1940s.

Changing source material is a charge that I have previously laid at the feet of the producers of the DCI Banks TV show. The series has resumed being shown here and so far I have seen two complete stories: Strange Affair and Dry Bones That Dream (aka Final Account). Some of the changes are due to production decisions (such as which actors appear) and thus are acceptable, but some are completely gratuitous and make no sense (thus annoying me). For example: the fact that musician Pamela Jeffries is Bangladeshi in the book but white on television slightly rankles, but why did they change her instrument from viola to clarinet???The fact that she plays the viola only becomes important when the thugs beat her up and break two fingers in her right hand, the bowing hand (better than breaking two fingers in her left hand). So why the clarinet? What difference does it make? It's not as if she plays during the programme.

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