Two well-made, humane films focus on the lives of maths prodigies: Morgan Matthews’ modestly-scaled X Plus Y and Morten Tyldum’s epic Alan Turing biopic, The Imitation Game.
“I find any communication of a non-mathematical nature … difficult,” confesses Nathan (Asa Butterfield), the autistic teenage math prodigy protagonist of Morgan Matthews’ X Plus Y. Precisely the same self-description might be given by another of the heroes featured in one of this year’s LFF films: Alan Turing, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.
It’s surprising just how well Matthews' and Tyldum’s films complement each other: the one a modestly-scaled crowd-pleaser focusing on a teenager’s goal to compete in a Mathematics Olympiad, the other a handsome historical drama celebrating a figure belatedly recognised as one of the key players in the Allies’ victory in World War II.
But as empathetic explorations of the sense of alienation experienced by the prodigiously gifted -- specifically the mathematically gifted – these two movies resonate. Amusingly, the films even have one performer in common: excellent young Alex Lawther, apparently the go-to actor for maths geniuses right now, who plays one of Nathan’s fellow competitors at the Olympiad in X Plus Y and incarnates the young Turing in The Imitation Game.
Having based the movie on Andrew Hodges’s biography Alan Turing: The Enigma the screenwriter of The Imitation Game, Graham Moore, has commented that he didn’t want the film to “feel like another stodgy biopic.” “Stodgy” would be unfair (the film moves spryly and swiftly, propelled by Alexandre Desplat’s insistent score), but I’d argue that The Imitation Game is a picture that’s determinedly old-fashioned in its virtues. The film has even been taken to task by some critics for “wimping out” in its portrayal of Turing’s homosexuality by not including sex scenes, an interesting example of the current expectations of our thoroughly pornified, HBO-influenced culture.
In terms of structure, The Imitation Game constructs an interwoven triple time-line that focuses on three key periods in Turing’s life: his school days, and a tenderly blossoming first romance with another pupil; his secret wartime work as part of the Bletchley Park code-breaker team and his development of the revolutionary electromechanical machine capable of cracking 3,000 Enigma-generated naval codes; and his arrest and prosecution for “gross indecency” in the '50s.
“I like solving puzzles,” Cumberbatch’s Turing frequently notes. And, elegantly handled as it is, the structure of The Imitation Game does require the audience to do some work, making the movie itself into something resembling a puzzle to solve.
Part of that puzzle is the mystery of Turing himself, of course: a brilliant man ill-equipped for everyday communication (or, initially, collaboration), and one who ends up betrayed and gruesomely medicated by the country he did so much to save. Cumberbatch’s superb, moving performance is the ace up the movie’s sleeve, conveying with deep compassion and insight the oddity of genius. Cumberbatch has a way of pronouncing “Enigma” so that the word takes on a suggestive, poetic quality and, without ever sentimentalising, he ensures that your heart goes out to Turing even when he’s being a pain.
As Joan Clark, the only woman on the code-breaker team and Turing’s eventual fiancee-of-convenience, Keira Knightley (twittering in some horrid hats) has some off-puttingly arch moments but comes through in a few scenes, and elsewhere the film feels fully inhabited by an ensemble of talented Brits, including Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard and Jack Tarlton.
Admirably, the film doesn’t over-emphasise Turing’s martyrdom: if anything, it finally errs too much on the side of uplift, determinedly turning tragedy into triumph in its closing moments. But it’s a well-made, intelligent and moving account that succeeds in accessibly and entertainingly bringing Turing’s story to a wider audience.
X Plus Y (2014)
The aims of X Plus Y may seem minor by comparison, but Matthews’ movie turns out to be a very delightful thing, and a film that’s also astute in its exploration of the pressures and tensions of the gifted, as it presents the talented young Nathan -- grief-stricken yet unable to express his emotions – gradually coming out of his shell for greater engagement with the world.
James Graham’s script doesn’t always take the predictable route, and if the film is a little fussy visually in its attempts to convey the protagonist’s perception of the world, it does boast a strong, atmospheric feel for location, as the movie moves from the English suburbs to the city of Taipei where the Olympiad selection takes place.
Butterfield’s slightly recessive, withdrawn quality hasn’t always suited the starring roles he’s had, but he's an absolutely perfect fit for Nathan, and the young actor is well supported by a good cast. The film reunites Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall after their success on the London stage in Constellations, and if there’s a slight strain of schtick to Spall’s jokey, blokey performance as Nathan's tutor the actor does also find some engaging vulnerabilities in his character.
Hawkins, meanwhile, is heartbreakingly good as a mother desperately trying to connect with her closed-off son, and Eddie Marsan brings liveliness and colour to his characterisation of the Olympiad team-leader. The movie adds up to a lovely piece of work, one that, like The Imitation Game honestly earns the emotions it elicits.