Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Plodding towards infinity

Jenny gives Matt Brown’s Ramanujan biopic 2 stars

The Man Who Knew Infinity is in the tortured genius genre, so we already know that it can’t possibly end happily. A poor young man from Madras, Srinivasa Ramanujan, a self-taught mathematical prodigy played charmingly by Dev Patel, eventually achieves some success at a Cambridge college after multiple barriers which include racism, snobbery and ill health.

Only ten minutes into this film I had decided that I was watching a Sunday evening TV idea which had grown too big for its sprockets. Was it the soppy version of India, all sitars and flower garlands? Was it the Bollywood casting of the pretty little wife who really just had to do a lot of soulful eye-rolling and staring into the horizon? Was it the cheerfully coloured ‘poverty’? 

As the film trudged along, I found concentration difficult, especially as further on into Row D at the Everyman there was a party of naughty ladies who were downing copious quantities of wine, chatting and consulting their phones. The wine had a predictable effect on their bladders so they needed to leave their seats quite a lot. Joe charitably thought that they might be Dev Patel groupies and that the phones were for sharing pictures of their beloved. But maybe they had just made a mistake about the film they thought they were going to see on a girlie night out. Pure Mathematics didn’t seem to hold their interest.

Then I found that certain intrusive, nit-picky questions began to preoccupy me. If Ramanujan was so poor, who paid for his splendidly tailored suits, beautiful shirts and nice cashmere cardis? After a 6,000 mile journey to England, how come his one cream suit was still in tip top condition? These important wardrobe questions were never answered. Why was the weather so peculiar? Even in Cambridge I don’t think the rain falls on just one side of an umbrella, and when you cross one of those handsome quads I doubt that the conversation booms as it did in this film or that the light glows quite so orangely on people’s faces for so much of the time. Do people with TB really have eyes that look like something out of a cheaply-made horror film?

Then there is the problem of how you explain mathematical genius when virtually no one in the audience is likely to understand a word of it. Answer: you show a lot of chalkboard or notebook workings but at such speed that we know we don’t need to bother to read them, and you have a handy Irish servant (a Bedder as I believe they are known) who doesn’t know any more maths than we do, so that Jeremy Irons, playing the Cambridge professor, GH Hardy, can do some helpful mansplaining (or mathsplaining, as Joe suggested it might be called).

Meantime, the ladies had sent out for another bottle, the wine glasses were glinting from the light on their phones and their faces seemed a little flushed.  

The biopic is a difficult act to pull off. Almost invariably it presents a one-dimensional, sentimentalised version of the person’s ‘real’ life. Pedants spring up to point out all the many factual mistakes and the director indignantly defends the film as fiction anyway. Many tortured geniuses have had a number of films made about their lives – for instance Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kalho, Howard Hughes – but can anyone remember these films now or distinguish them from each other?

The actual Ramanujan married his wife when she was ten and left her when she was fifteen. He was not tall, rangy and handsome like Dev Patel but a rather chubby plain-looking fellow. His was undoubtedly a life cut tragically short, but somehow by the time we got to that part I had wholly lost interest and I was a bit preoccupied by the utterly trivial question of how soon we could get to the restaurant and order our own bottle.

Joe's footnote

I think playwrights have had better luck with this kind of material, Jenny, partly because subsidised theatre is not required to please a mass popcorn-eating audience (nor a wine-guzzling, selfie-tweeting one), but also because the stage is a symbolic medium that lends itself more readily to the exploration of ideas.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (1998) didn’t depend on leaden mathsplaining to present Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but dramatized it through a series of conflicting narratives. In Arcadia (1993) Tom Stoppard created the poignant fiction of a nineteenth century teenage genius who grasps the concept of chaos theory, but dies, leaving her grieving tutor to waste a lifetime failing to bring her ideas to fruition, and in this way communicates one of the essential features of this branch of mathematics – that it depends on repeated iterations, each one simple in itself, but on a scale that only a computer can manage.  

In defence of Matt Brown’s film, at least some brief explanation is offered of the kind of problem Ramanujan was working on, even if the device is rather creaky. As far as I remember, A Beautiful Mind, starring the beefy Russell Crowe, quickly abandoned any attempt at explaining game theory in favour of more muscular activities such as heaving desks from first floor windows.

I enjoyed The Man Who Knew Infinity more than you, Jenny, and more than our neighbours, who seemed strangely indifferent to the craggy charms of Trinity College quad and the even craggier charms of Jeremy Irons. I was moved by Hardy’s attachment to his fellow mathematician Littlewood, and by his growing understanding of the profundity of his Indian protégé’s genius. But for a mind-expanding treatment of Ramanujan’s life, A Disappearing Number (2007) was vastly more successful. Devised by Théâtre de Complicité and directed and conceived by Simon McBurney, it included live percussion, suggestive of the numerical sequences that absorbed Ramanujan, and brought abstract ideas impressionistically alive through dance and dramatic action.  

Monday, 18 April 2016

We bomb because we care

Joe questions the premise of Eye in the Sky

If you like the kind of thriller where stuff gets blown up and no one has time to count the bodies, you’ll be disappointed with Eye in the Sky. Writer Guy Hibbert and director Gavin Hood make us wait for most of the film while an expanding circle of military and political figures agonise over whether to authorise a single precision drone strike and how to minimise the human cost. The result is more like a seminar in moral philosophy than an updated Airforce One.

The set-up is designed to present an excruciatingly balanced ethical conundrum. In response to information that senior figures in the East African terrorist group Al-Shabaab will be gathering in Nairobi, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is directing an operation by Kenyan ground troops to pick them up. When the terrorist meeting is moved to a house inside a camp controlled by extremists, a no-go area for the military, Powell sees no alternative to a drone strike.

Overseeing this operation from Whitehall is Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), the British Attorney General, and a couple of government ministers. From a US air force base outside Las Vegas, two young American drone pilots operate the “eye in the sky” of the film’s title and wait for instructions.

Meanwhile the stakes are rising on both sides of the question. It turns out Powell has in her sights not only three “high-value targets”, identified as numbers 2, 3 and 5 on the US President’s East Africa kill list, but also two suicide bombers who are even now suiting up to go out and create carnage in some public place at an estimated cost of 80 lives. Who could resist zapping the lot of them in one go? Random deaths will be limited to a small area around the house. But a child, who has previously been observed playing safely in her own back yard, sets up a stall in the street selling bread. For all those watching the live footage this girl’s fate becomes the central question. Can they strike without killing or injuring her? Should they strike anyway?
Image result for the eye in the sky
At the level of human drama, the film is absorbing. But I found myself increasingly distracted by a feeling that the debate was skewed. In their charismatic performances, Mirren and Rickman seem to represent the military at its most admirable, doing what has to be done to keep us safe. The US politicians, who appear only briefly, are cartoonishly gung-ho. It’s left to the British politicians, agonising over biscuits and coffee in their plush Whitehall office, to consider the case against action. But they’re a weaselly bunch, worrying how they’ll explain themselves on the Today Programme if it all goes wrong and the footage is leaked to you tube. Rickman, required to seek ever higher clearance, gives a characteristic performance of deadpan disdain (sadly his last). This raised uneasy chuckles from the elderly matinee audience in the Clapham Picturehouse. I imagine less thoughtful audiences might howl with derisive laughter at the cowardly buck-passing. But this isn’t an episode of The Thick of it: these politicians are clearly sweating their way through a dilemma that has a moral dimension for them as well as a political one.

It occurred to me only afterwards that the way the film maintains the illusion of balance is by piling up the rational case in favour of the drone strike and the emotional case against.

The argument for saving the child, played enchantingly by Aisha Takow, is given emotional weight for the audience who get to know her at ground level. We learn that her father does nothing more dangerous for a living than mending bicycles, that her mother bakes the bread that she sells in the market, and that they are explicitly not “fanatics”, the term her father uses for their neighbours. In the privacy of the home, she studies maths and in the yard she plays charmingly with a hula hoop, though her hula-hooping, like her schoolbooks, must be hidden from visitors. All of which makes her, and her parents, effortlessly appealing to a Western audience, while adding nothing to the moral case for protecting her. 

Rickman’s character, resistant to such sentimental concerns, takes the pragmatic view: “Save her and risk killing 80 others.” The nearest thing we get to an answer comes from one of the British politicians: “If Al-Shabaab kills 80 people, we win the propaganda war. If we kill one child, they do.” This is a powerful argument fatally weakened by its acceptance of the General’s assumption that drone strikes save lies – calculably and immediately. No one in the film questions this, nor the long-term strategy of assassinating replaceable individuals while alienating civilian populations who must live under the constant threat of random aerial attack. 
It’s a junior minister, played engagingly by Monica Dolan, who offers the most consistent objection on moral grounds, but the script gives her nothing to say in response to Rickman’s sonorous last words: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war”. This final stand-off between the agitated, damp-eyed civilian woman and the sorrowfully determined General symbolises the heart-versus-head premise on which the film is constructed.

Persuasively written, superbly acted, convincing in its procedural details, Eye in the Sky left me feeling emotional manipulated and intellectually bamboozled. The argument for risking the child’s life is unrealistically contrived. The give-away is the addition of the suicide bombers and the confident estimate of 80 imminent deaths. In the war we are conducting with daily drone strikes in many countries, how often, I wonder, does a drone pilot have in his sights a suicide bomber on the point of detonating his vest? We’ve become used to the justification for torture that was regularly represented in Fox’s long-running series, 24. Wouldn’t you torture someone if he could direct you to a bomb in time for you to defuse it? This film seems to offer an equivalent defence of drone strikes.

In the desperate circumstance presented in this story, a little corruption seems justified. When Mirren’s character, having struggled conscientiously throughout to do what’s best, makes the first move towards a cover-up, I felt invited to consider the lonely burden of responsibility carried by those charged with protecting us, because, as another fictional colonel once famously remarked, we can’t handle the truth. Sadly there’s no one in this film with the eloquence or the stature to challenge that dangerous falsehood.  

And after the General has had his say and the verbal debate is over, it’s only the closing wordless sequences, in a hospital in Nairobi and on an Air Force base in Nevada, that suggest the devastating cost of such actions – to the innocent victims, of course, and to the anti-terrorist cause, but also, less obviously, to those who fire the missiles in our name from a distance that keeps them physically safe but cannot protect them from the emotional and moral cost of what they are required to do. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Club puts Spotlight in the shade

Jenny admires Pablo Larraín's unsettling meditation on hurt and guilt 

How fascinating it is to compare this Chilean film with the American film Spotlight. The subject is the same: the misbehaviour of priests in the Catholic Church. To me, Spotlight seems to take a woefully self-righteous and one dimensional approach: those terrible priests and all their snaky supporters have to be tracked down and exposed! The good guys - those clever journos - must triumph!

The Club is different. It is set in an impoverished village at the edge of Chile. It is where the world of the living ends and the world of purgatory begins. In an ugly yellow coastal house there are four priests and a nun. The priests have been hidden away because they have committed various misdemeanours, not all of them child abuse. Their dismal lives are made more bearable by decent food, wine and by training their greyhound to win races, the proceeds of which they use to provide more comforts. Three strangers disrupt their routine. First, a fifth priest arrives but he brings in his trail his stalker, a dishevelled homeless man who posts himself outside the house to chant a continuous litany of foul and explicit description of just what this priest did to him. A suicide brings the third stranger, a dapper Jesuit who has come to investigate the death and to assess whether any of the inhabitants of the house will express genuine regret for their past actions.

The film is shot, and I’d love to know how this was achieved, in grimy shades of deep dusty grey tinged with a sandy brown haze, often against the light. The widescreen photography empties the landscape, stripping it of colour and life. Nothing looks clean, nor is it. These people do not feel remorse, they expertly justify their actions with skewed dogma and euphemism. They may feel shame but not guilt. Even the slyly smiling nun, theoretically monitoring their behaviour, for instance how long they spend in the shower (‘long showers are forbidden’) has herself been exiled for cruel behaviour.

It is easy to hate people who abuse their power seeing them in tabloid language as ‘evil beasts’. These priests seem dislikeable, certainly, but they are also forlorn creatures, silent in their unease with themselves, unable to connect even with their fellow ‘prisoners’, one of whom has advanced dementia and who has been there so long that no one can remember why he was sent in the first place. The group don’t care whether they impress their Jesuit interrogator or not. They tell him rudely that he is a Vatican bureaucrat, a nobody; they challenge him to say that he is without sin himself. And of course he cannot.

It has its sardonic moments of black humour which may remind people with long TV memories of Father Ted, an inspired late nineties Irish sitcom with three priests and a housekeeper banished to the fictional Craggy Island in the far West of Ireland. Here too we encounter dementia and foul language, visits from pompous and ineffectual church dignitaries, priests for whom religion provides only a job and a narrative to explain and excuse their actions. And as in Father Ted, the Church protects its own. But the vision The Club offers is darker and more profound. The film is a meditation on how often we hurt others, how little real care we give them, and the difficulty of acknowledging guilt.

The Club is more compelling in its set-up than in its plot. I found the final act especially contrived and unconvincing and if you’re not familiar with Catholic rituals you may be bemused, as I was, by the heavy symbolism. However, unlike Spotlight, this is a film that I continue to ponder; its images don’t fade.