Like the progress bar of a steadily loading web page, Unscorched creeps into your brain much as the online material creeps into its characters’ souls. Playwright Luke Owen and director Michelle Montague have created a grim evening’s entertainment that explores the coexistence of depravity and normalcy. Tom (David Green) is a new recruit in the analysis of online images of child abuse, alongside senior analyst Nidge (Neil Auker). Manager Mark (Joe Darbyshire) supervises with due condescension as Tom finds himself increasingly distressed with the disturbing material he encounters. Tom’s growing romance with Emily (Hattie Amey) suffers significantly as the narrative progresses, otherwise innocent phrases and actions triggering unexpected reactions in him.
Unscorched’s great strength is its merging of the extreme and the everyday. Owen’s heartfelt and relatable script includes a recognisable office environment, complete with refreshment and recreation facilities, passwords and procedures, and office terminology designed to neutralise and contain the provocative material. Suspect websites carry innocuous reference numbers and high numbers designate the severity of the material. As a result, when Tom encounters a “5”, the audience can imagine the sort of images he is seeing. Montague’s direction, however, emphasises the failure of these containment measures. Some scenes begin before the lights rise and others continue after blackout. The stage is divided into three sections and characters usually enter and exit through the sections’ respective doors, but sometimes they cross from one section into another. This spilling of the narrative outside the confines of the space illustrates that the horrors Tom encounters at work cannot simply be left at the office – rather they remain a constant, gnawing presence. Yet the work goes on, Tom’s distress contrasted against Nidge’s logical detachment. The play asks what is the appropriate response to human suffering – paralysing anguish or professional dispassion? No answers are given, the audience left to decide how they would react in such a situation.
Unscorched continues at the Sewell Barn Theatre until Saturday 6th December. Tickets can be purchased through the theatre’s website.
Mike Leigh’s biopic of the artist JMW Turner is, in equal parts, gorgeous to look at, amusing to follow and frustrating to understand. Timothy Spall is mesmerising in the titular role, communicating as much through guttural sounds as dialogue and his proud yet shambling gait. Despite this, however, the character of Turner remains largely impenetrable. His artistic genius is evident, as are the mechanics of his relationships with his family, his peers and his lovers, but you rarely get a sense of his motivations nor get under his skin. Dick Pope’s digital cinematography creates some startling and beautiful images, the line between painting and technological image capture becoming blurred in some places. Were this blurring a conceit of the film overall, it could have been an interesting meditation on the nature of imaging and art itself, but Leigh seems less concerned with any central theme(s) and instead adopts a meandering, warts-and-all portrayal. Towards the end of the film, fears over the march of modernity start to creep into the narrative, including the train and, significantly, photography. Yet this is no more central than Turner’s neglect of his children, his intermittent sexual engagements and his contemptuous associations with high society. The net result is a film that feels broad and unfocused, offering no central ideas nor a propulsive narrative. There is much to admire in Mr Turner, but it is ultimately, like Turner himself, hard to love. But then, it’s art, so perhaps that’s the point.
The opening voiceover of The Imitation Game sets the tone and expectation of the film. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) instructs his audience to listen carefully and, once the story is completed, make their judgement based on full awareness of the facts. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore ensure full appreciation by crafting an extremely precise film that balances the different elements of this important historical story.
In one respect, The Imitation Game is a gripping wartime thriller about the breaking of the Enigma code, a crucial development in the eventual Allied victory over the Nazis. Despite this being a known historical story, The Imitation Game still ratchets up the tension through its focus upon the code-breakers’ painstaking work, complete with frustrations, exultations and very difficult choices. Equally, the film is a portrayal of a man out of place, as Turing is homosexual in a time when it was illegal, and also socially awkward to the point of being aspergic. He is a genius surrounded by people who cannot keep up, and the film contextualises his isolation within his sophisticated intellectual understanding, his social ineptitude and his essential secrecy around his sexuality. The tension between this isolation and essential interactions is the source of both humour and pathos across the film’s three narrative threads.
The framing narrative takes place in 1951, when Turing is investigated by Manchester police Investigator Nock (Rory Kinnear) on suspicion of Soviet espionage, an investigation that leads to the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality. Turing consequently tells Nock the full story of his work on Enigma between 1939 and 1944, which forms the bulk of the narrative. There are also flashbacks to 1928 and the young Turing’s (Alex Lawther) relationship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Across these different threads, Turing’s lack of comprehension over social decorum and military officialdom are funny both in terms of his unexpected responses and in highlighting the absurdity in such conventions. Yet these sequences also demonstrate Turing’s difficulty with people, a difficulty that becomes increasingly tragic.
It is to the film’s great credit that it balances its thrills, laughs and tears with perfect precision, as calculated a piece of engineering as the machine Turing builds to decode Enigma. Yet it is in no way a cold film, the emotional distress of Turing as well as those around him including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) contrasting with the sneering superciliousness of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and the ruthless pragmatism of MI6 director Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), as well as Nock’s own zeal for his investigation being replaced with dismay over his findings. Everyone is fighting their own war here, and while the casualties may be inevitable, they are engaging and affecting in equal measure.
Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.
Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.
This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.
Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?
The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.
For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.