February 21st, 2015

The Imitation Game

We went to see “The Imitation Game,” the new biopic about mathematician, codebreaker, and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing. Benedict Cumberbach is very good as Turing, creating an Asberger’s-esque character that is distinct from, yet has some similarities with the “high-functioning sociopath” Sherlock Holmes.

The movie deals most with the wartime years at Bletchley Park, with flashbacks to Turing’s unhappy childhood, and is framed by the events of the homosexuality scandal that brought about Turing’s untimely death.

Turing’s tragedy, of course, is that, having done such important work for the war effort, he was treated so shabbily by the police and courts. However, there is no way the court system could have taken his war work into account, since it was covered by the Official Secrets Act at the time. So the movie’s conceit, of Turing having told his story to the curious policeman (Rory Kinnear), even as an extended hypothetical, is a fantasy.

The movie was accurate in other ways, including the ultimate Enigma breakthrough being based upon an observation by one of the female code clerks (the type of women featured in “The Bletchley Circle” TV program).

The film looks very real, with the reconstruction of “Christopher”, the Enigma-breaking machine, most impressive. There is a good deal of real drama, not only in the ups and downs of the cracking struggle, but also in the realization of the power of life and death that has fallen into their hands when “Christopher” begins to work.

Very nice supporting performances by Kiera Knightley as mathematician Joan Clarke, veteran actors Charles Dance and Mark Strong, and “Downton Abbey” cast member Alan Leech, among others. Recommended.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/267830.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

Mr. Turner

Tuesday, January 28th, we went to see “Mr. Turner,” the biopic about one of England’s most famous painters, J.M.W. Turner.

The movie is mainly a character study of the great artist. Timothy Spall spent three years preparing for this role, including teaching himself to paint in Turner’s style, and it was effort well spent. Spall inhabits the role thoroughly, making Turner’s many contradictions of character believable and natural. He is normally monosyllabic and antisocial, but could be cheerful and sociable among colleagues. He had great erudition but could be horridly crude. He had a long and evidently tender relationship with his mistress, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), but is totally cold towards his prior mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and disavows his two daughters by her. Meanwhile, he callously exploits his abject housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).

This gives Spall the opportunity to enact a great range of emotion. A classically trained actor, he can literally express more emotion with his back to the camera than many actors can face front. In one scene, Sarah Danby is berating him for missing the funeral of their eldest daughter. While she sees only Turner’s impassive visage, the audience sees his hands behind him, fingers twisting into painful knots. We both thought it a masterful scene, and great kudos to Spall and to director Mike Leigh.

Although there’s no great plot, the film is beautiful to watch, at times reproducing scenes from Turner’s oeuvre, such as “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway,” and “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.” It does show us some of Turner’s evolution as an artist, evolving from England’s premier painter of seascapes to an experimental pre-Impressionist whose work ceased to be understood by the average viewer. Leigh shows us Turner as a tireless worker, constantly either painting, or hiking along the coasts seeking new visions to capture. We see why he was called the original “painter of light,” and behold his mastery of atmosphere—sky, spray, steam, smoke, and storm—which galvanized the static landscape/seascape form.

For those who know some history of art, it’s also fun to see Turner’s contemporaries brought to life, even as cameos: John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Beechey, John Edward Carew, and others figures of the art world, such as the Ruskin family, and Turner’s friend and frequent patron, the 3rd Earl of Egremont.

Recommended for fans of the art of painting, and of the art of the cinema.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268275.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

The Met in HD: “Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle”

Last night we went to the cinema for the encore showing of the Metropolitan Opera double bill of “Iolanta” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and “Bluebeard’s Castle,” (“Herzog Blauberd’s Berg”) both of which were beautiful and fascinating in their own ways, and intriguingly linked by some common themes.

Iolanta was a Met Opera premier, although the opera was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg. This was Tchaikovsky’s last opera, with a libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky, and is based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René's Daughter) by Henrik Hertz. Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), the only daughter of King Rene of Provence, was born blind, however, she does no know this due to the King’s decree. He has had her raised in isolation, in a beautiful home in the mountains, with a loving and caring staff who have been forbidden on pain of death to speak to her of anything pertaining to vision or light. As the opera opens, Iolanta, grown to womanhood, is overcome with sadness, feeling that she is missing something for which she has no name. She asks her servants why they love her, when she can give them nothing in return. Her nurses reply that her love is sufficient, but she is not satisfied by the answer.

The King (Ilya Bannik) arrives, accompanied by “Moorish” physician, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), whom he hopes can cure Iolanta of her blindness before her pending marriage to Robert, Duke of Burgundy. However, he disagrees with the doctor’s proposed course of treatment. Ibn-Hakia believes that the spirit must take part in the healing, and that, if Iolanta does not know she is blind, she cannot aid in her healing, as she must want to be cured for the treatment to be effective. The King refuses. The doctor says he will give the King time to reconsider.

Enter Robert (Aleksei Markov), and his friend, Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala), a wealthy Count, enter. They have become lost while hiking, and, with noblemen’s insouciance, have seen but ignored the “keep out, on pain of death” warnings posted by Rene. Robert confesses that he is not looking forward to his contracted marriage to Iolanta, whom he has never met, because he loves the vivacious and lusty Matilda. Vaudemont allows that he prefers the pure and virginal type. Curious about the lonely house, they peer in, and Vaudemont is instantly smitten by Iolanta’s youthful beauty. Robert thinks his friend has been bewitched, and goes for help.

Vaudemont enters the house, and speaks to Iolanta. She is charmed and pleased to meet a stranger. In the affecting scene that follows, Vaudemont discovers that she cannot see. When she is puzzled by his words, he explains that light is the first of nature’s gifts to Creation, without which its glory cannot be comprehended. Iolanta refutes him, saying that she can hear the glory of Creation in the song of the birds, the sound of the stream—and in his voice.

The King and servants return and are appalled at what has happened. Ibn-Hakia argues that this is a good thing, since now her cure is possible. The King replies that the doctor may attempt the cure, but if Iolanta does not gain her sight, Vaudemont will be put to death. Iolanta vows that she will do everything she can to see.

While the doctor is working, Rene confesses to Vaudemont that he won’t be killed, the King only wanted to give his daughter incentive. Vaudemont announces his rank, and offers for Iolanta’s hand, whether she is cured or not. Rene replies that he is King of Provence, and that his daughter is already promised.

Enter Robert with his rescue party. He recognizes Rene. At Vaudemont’s urging, Robert asks to be released from his betrothal to Iolanta, which Rene grants, awarding her hand instead to Vaudemont.

Iolante’s old servant enters, weeping. The men are alarmed, fearing the experiment has failed, but he answers that he was so moved by Iolanta’s faith and dedication, that he could not remain. Then, Iolanta’s women appear, joyously announcing that she can see!

At first, Iolanta is disoriented and frightened by her new vision, but speedily adjusts upon recognizing her father and Vaudemont by their voices. The opera ends with a joyous chorus.
The music by Tchaikovsky is gorgeous, and all the parts very well sung, under the direction of Maestro Valery Gergiev. Costuming was kind of a vague early Twentieth-Century, but worked well for the mostly timeless libretto. The simple set was augmented by effective projections. Acting was generally good, although I was unsatisfied by Ms. Netrebko’s physical portrayal of a woman blind from birth. I blame this on the stage director, Mariusz Trelinski, though, since everything else in the performance was spot on.

Light is also a vital theme in Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” and very much so in this fully staged version. Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) brings home his new bride, Judith (Nadja Michael), and they almost at once fall into a battle of wills as Judith, appalled by the darkness, badgers Bluebeard for the keys to the castle doors, in order to admit light and air. Bluebeard grudgingly complies, hoping to discourage her by first showing her his bloody torture chamber, and equally bloody armory. What is portrayed is the battle of two obsessions: Judith believes that she can banish the darkness that haunts Bluebeard, while Bluebeard hopes that if Judith will only kiss him, ask no questions, and leave the doors closed, everything will be all right.

When Judith is undaunted by the first two rooms, Bluebeard more willingly surrenders the keys to his treasury, garden, and domain, seeming to be pleased by the lightness that has pervaded his castle. But Judith presses on, opening the sixth door, the “sea of tears”, and the seventh. In this version, we see the grounds of Bluebeard’s castle, haunted by the spectres of his prior wives. “They are still alive!” Judith cries, but in denial. The foreground we see an opened, shallow grave. A body, with Judith’s blonde hair, face turned away, and wearing the green dress she arrived in, lies partly in and partly out of the grave. As Judith takes her place among the ghosts, Bluebeard lies down in the grave and tenderly kisses the body, the first kiss we have seen him actually give. As the lights die, he sings that now, it shall always be midnight.

Bartok’s music is powerful, dire, and satisfying. Both Mr. Petrenko and Ms. Michael sang with passion, holding nothing back, as was required in such a deeply psychosexual production. (Given the constant struggle for dominance between Bluebeard and Judith, both Georgie and I came up with the subtitle “Fifty Shades of Blue.” Fitting, since Bluebeard is the creature of which “Christian Gray” is merely a pale shadow--.) Again, projections added to the eerie atmosphere, while paralleling those used in “Iolanta.” Scene shifts that were covered by falling petals in “Iolanta,” were in “Bluebeard” masked by drifting ashes or what might have been scraps of burned paper.

With the journey from darkness into light, In “Iolanta,” and from light back to darkness in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” it was a thrilling, if sometimes harrowing, night at the opera.

This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/268511.html. Please comment there using OpenID.