“The Imitation Game” does not trust us to love a movie about its subject — the sad, brilliant, socially stunted mathematician Alan Turing. As the film tumbles along, you can feel director Morton Tyldum pulling out organ stops and dumping ballast out of the hot air balloon basket. About two-thirds of the way in, you can feel him panic and bolt, like a rabbit, in the direction crowd-pleasing nonsense. It may please the crowd, but it did not please me.
“Mr. Turner,” director Mike Leigh’s biopic about the painter J.M.W. Turner, is a more trusting creature. Eschewing all conventions of plot and narrative, Leigh imagines an audience that will trundle and grunt across the English landscape with its trundling, grunting protagonist. That audience may not exist in droves, but some of us embody it.
You should see both of these movies, but you should make a special effort to see “Mr. Turner” on a big screen with good equipment. There are some movies that don’t make any sense on a 46-inch Samsung, and this is one of them. “The Imitation Game,” by contrast, will wait. Turing is important. His story is important. But you can watch it the way you watch “Masterpiece Theater” and not miss out terribly.
“Mr. Turner” is almost entirely about seeing. Timothy Spall, as the painter, suggests a man so ravished and overwhelmed by the way the world looks to him that he has let pretty much everything else — from the power of speech to human relationships — slide into a ramshackle matter-of-factness. You will notice the word “suggests.” Leigh is never pushy. One of the best dramatizations of an artist is not a movie but Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” but “Mr. Turner” is blissfully free of feverish exhalations about color and design and harmony. Only once, in a fumbling art class speech about reflective surfaces, does Turner tell us anything, and even then he seems like a caveman struggling to acquire language. Spall is fabulous in the role, and his gruff and grunting Turner makes Brando sound like the Great Enunicator.
Leigh uses the same actors over and over, and this film makes me want to go back and re-watch “Topsy Turvy,” another movie about how artistic greatness comes at the expense of something, maybe everything. But certainly Leigh has never made a movie so visually arresting. Taking on a subject like Turner amounts to pointing to the bleachers, right? You’ve got to hit the long ball, optically speaking, and that is what Leigh does.
I wish I liked the “Imitation Game” better. I’m fascinated by Turing and spent a lot of time recently getting ready for a show about him. Like all citizens of 2015, I am also a dedicated Cumberbatchean. The man can do no wrong, and he is an excellent Turing, dancing neatly on the edge that divides the know-it-all from the man who actually does know it all and a second edge that divides the mere milquetoast from man whose mental life has rendered his physical self nearly meaningless.
But, risking a mild spoiler, I can tell you the precise moment at which this movie exhausted my patience. Turing and his team of math geeks have cracked the Nazi code. Seconds later, his friend with no benefits Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) decodes a German message. Clarke whips her head toward a map with pins in it. Oh my goodness! She can somehow tell that a convoy is about to be hit by the Germans. We have only minutes to stop it! We can’t, not without letting on that we’ve cracked the Enigma code, says Turing. Wait!, says one of the other geeks. My brother is on one of those boats! This all happens in the space of two minutes, and by the end of it, you’re rooting for Graham Chapman to march in and say things have gotten too silly. Which they have.
None of that constitutes an excuse from seeing “Imitation Game.” We are not excused from anything. But one does wish the movie truckled less and trusted more.