Downton Abbey – the film

We originally started watching Downton Abbey in box set form – and there are a lot of episodes. Great entertainment, but in the end, we stopped watching. Like any soap opera, the twists and turns in the plot seemed more to do with maintaining peak audiences rather than telling a story.

And then Downton Abbey the film appeared in our local cinema. Great. Watch the finale, and cut out the box sets. We had seen enough to know who the main characters were. We had followed the story of Lady Sybil and the romance with the chauffeur, Tom Branson and cried when she died. But we had stopped watching when the unending sage of Bates, and the rise and fall of his fortunes that stretched the bounds of credulity.

The film is a great feel good movie and ends with lots of happy ever afters and the promise of even more. The King and Queen are coming to Downton (Edward VII and Queen Mary) – just staying for the night. Apparently, you do not invite the monarch, the monarch invites themselves. And turns up with retinue, takes over the running of your house and the kitchens. But it is a great honour. And everyone bows and curtseys and melts into extreme sycophancy. Anyone for a republic?

The film is unlikely to be a candidate for the Oscars and possibly does nothing to promote the monarchy, but is quite entertaining, although the ending was just a little too drawn out in its syrupy sweetness.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This film is an absolute joy to watch. We saw it when it was first screened and I chose it as my Christmas DVD for watching over the Christmas period. What I enjoyed was its sheer theatricality. So often films concentrate on the long lingering shots so you can read the minds of the characters, or else, there is gut-wrenching reality. But here there was theatre. There was pathos, humanity in all its forms, from the noble to the greedy. Heroes and psychopaths. And a window onto a world that was about to disappear forever, the grand central Europe, where the fabulous Austro-Hungarian empire was about to be annihilated by Hitler, the final boot being put in by Stalin.

The central character is the hotel's concierge, Monsieur Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes and the story is told through the eyes of his young protégé, Zero, played by Tony Revolori.

If you have not yet seen the film, do put it on your must-see list. You will not be disappointed.

The Imitation Game

This is an extremely enjoyable film, even if the local cinema messed up the projection. There we were, just up to the point where Turing's Apspergers is obvious (a discussion on invitation to lunch) when the film stopped. And we had to endure 20 minutes of interruption while the manager/projectionist struggled to fix an incredibly minor fault in projection – something to do with an orange cast on the screen. But eventually the film was resumed and the enjoyment continued. OK – so the story had been simplified for screen consumption – but so what? This is a great story – a formidable mathematical genius who is able to circumvent norms of society in order to achieve the construction of the first digital computer to decrypt the enigma code.

Benedict Cumberbatch took the Sherlock Holmes character to a new level with his portrayal of Turing. That was to be expected from such a great actor. But Alex Lawther, the boy who played the young Turing at school in Sherbourne was a very convincing child version of the adult Turing.

Turing was a homosexual and we are bought face to face with the way that homosexuality was treated in this country until the 1960s. Turing's treatment by the hands of our establishment was shocking to the extreme. Throughout his life, Turing was subject to bullying, mainly because he was odd. He was bullied at school – do parents really spend vast sums of money so that their children can be bullied at public schools? If the treatment meted out to Turing by his peers had been handed out to my son, I would have been hammering at the gates of the school demanding justice for my son. Like so many people with Aspergers, Turing was lonely. In the film there are two friends, his first love, Christopher Morton, a school friend who died from TB and Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) . Through the lens of both these, we find Turing a loyal and compassionate friend, but extremely vulnerable.

The film does raise important issues.

  1. A moral
    issue. If you know that X will kill Y, should you stop X from killing Y, even though this may result in X killing many more people. Or should you sacrifice Y and so save countless other lives. And who, in times of war should make that decision?
  2. How do we treat those who are not like us? Alan Turing was different from most people, and he was bullied because of it. In 1954, he was found dead, cause of death – cyanide poisoning. Suicide? Possibly. Look at the factors:
    1. He was conviction of indecency in 1952, and allowed himself to be subjected to hormonal therapy to cure the homosexuality
    2. The criminal conviction meant that he lost his security clearance
    3. People with Aspergers are often prone to depression, possibly bought on by social isolation.

    Against this is the fact that other causes of cyanide poisoning were not eliminated. Turing also had a great appetite to survive

Alan Turing was a remarkable mathematician and this film just celebrates one aspect of his work. Its weakness is that it does not celebrate the other contributions that Turing made post war to computing. The fact that I am typing this on a laptop, writing to be uploaded to a server is due to Turing's work in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Alan Turing is a hero of the modern age and he should be remembered for more that his work on decrypting Enigma and a conviction for homosexuality.

12 years a slave

There is a story that is told in my family about my great-grandfather, William Cunningham, who found that his new wife, Isabella Cameron, came complete with a slave plantation in British Guiana. My great-grandfather freed the slaves. He did a few another things, this man from Glasgow, but that is another story.

So we went to our local cinema to see the Oscar nominated film, 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup. Solomon is a good, honest decent hard working citizen of New York State. He has a wife and two delightful children. He is also black. The year is 1841, twenty years before the start of the American Civil War. Solomon is enticed into going to Washington, where he is kidnapped and delivered into slavery. During the next 12 years, Solomon never gives up his humanity and decency, despite the deprivations and cruelty forced upon him. Eventually he manages to persuade a white Canadian, a carpenter called Bass to write to a list of people in Saratoga, New York. Liberation followed..

The film was beautiful. When Solomon has to whip Patsee, another slave, the camera was on Solomon. Any other director would have relished the blood and flesh – but McQueen does not. We see, in the end, Patsee’s back, a cruel mass of flesh and skin and blood as her wounds are being dressed. The degradation of the human beings sold into slavery does not need to humiliate.

Perhaps one of the mot startling message that came from the film was that slavery did not just dehumanise the slaves, but also their “masters”. The presence of slaves often had a corrosive effect on the relationships within the household. Wives and children had competitors. The slave-owner’s legitimate children often had half brothers and sisters born into slavery, living only yards away from them in abject poverty.

And then too were the economics. Solomon’s masters had to borrow money to buy him. $1,000 would buy you a male slave in 1841. This, depending on the source, was equivalent to $28,000 today ( ). Slaves were an expensive investment and also needed overseers. The reason for employing slaves appears to be largely social, owning slaves bought status. However, given the cost of initial purchase it seems incredible that anyone would want to mistreat their property.

Another point. I am reading Plato at the moment. Heavy going sometimes. Plato (through Socrates) asks “What Is Justice?” Ah yes, just what is justice in a slave owning society? Justice says that I have a right to my property. But what if my property is another human being? What then?

We now have a concept of justice that is inclusive. Solomon does eventually attain his liberty and return home. And yet he is denied justice. Despite his best efforts, those who were responsible for his enslavement went unpunished.


Lincoln – the film

Last night we went to the film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis. This was an extremely enjoyable film and certainly made one think. The year is 1865 and Lincoln, like Barak Obama, has just been elected for a second term.

So much of the film is familiar. Congress holds the president to ransom; the forces of conservatism are pitched against the forces of “radicalism”, or liberalism. The film covers Lincoln’s last months as he stands on the threshold of history. The thirteenth amendment to the constitution was to abolish slavery in the United States. Other amendments were added later, building on this, the most radical of all amendments to the constitution. The most surprising this about this film is the fact that Lincoln was a republican and it was the Republican party that was most in favour of the abolition of slavery, the Democrats were opposed. And yet, nearly 100 years later, it is a Democrat president, John F Kennedy who finally brings full civil rights to Black Americans and finally, the first black president is also a Democrat. How things change over time.

At the crucial vote to pass the Thirteenth amendment, the speaker elects to cast his vote, for as he says, history is being made. Now, it is impossible to imagine a world where the United States had not legislated against slavery.

The film does no favours to the American political system. Then as now, the system is open the bribery and corruption – then as now the votes of Congressmen can be bought. And the film certainly does no favours to those who are on the religious right. How can anyone say that slavery is ordained by God? And yet the religious right did.