Why Can’t Movies Capture Genius?

Three films about British brains show the trouble of bringing otherworldly intelligence to the big screen. You can show J.M.W Turner’s paintings or Alan Turing’s computer but never get inside their minds.

Liam Daniel/Universal Pictures

‘Tis the season, apparently, to celebrate that strange species known as the oddball British genius.

It might be accidental or it might be part of a brilliant move by the “Great British” brand’s marketing team that we have three movies, Mr. Turner, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, competing in the Oscar season that are biopics featuring, respectively, the transformative Victorian artist J.W.M. Turner, the computing phenomenon Alan Turing, and the mind-blowing astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

Nobody does eccentric genius quite like the Brits – at least, that’s what the Brits themselves like to think, because they do seriously cherish this form of exceptionalism as a counter to the idea that they are a particularly uptight and anal breed – it may even be that the two concepts are complementary rather than inimical. That in itself is a very British thought.


The problem is, how do you find a movie narrative that can explain genius, British or otherwise? There is no easy way of showing genius as though it’s an acquired skill following a timeline or, more perplexing, something that’s acquired simply at birth without tuition.

Genius doesn’t exist in a corporeal form like an organ that can be dissected and explained. The makers of biopics about geniuses are crippled from the start by being more dependent on showing the outcome, the effects of genius, rather than the process. The process tends to remain trapped and inaccessible inside a person – usually a very complicated person.

So filmmakers usually resort to a plot device to compensate for this absence. Sometimes it almost works, as it did in Amadeus. In that case the device was to put the genius in opposition to a majority of established cultural tastes and codes. In Peter Shaffer’s play and the Milos Forman movie, Mozart’s opponent is both a metaphor and a person: Antonio Salieri is not just a mediocrity but portrayed as the manifestation of mediocrity’s universal powers to destroy original talent.

Thus opposed, the young Mozart, socially impudent, scatalogical and musically overcharged with creative destruction, has to smash his way through a rigid system of royal patronage to recognition. Forman shows us the simplest of explanations for Mozart’s genius: it’s all in his head. And what a head. It’s breathtaking to witness. From this louche improbable source pours music of sublime beauty without one false note. The movie works because we are engulfed in the music and believe that we have been in the presence of its creation. We haven’t, but that doesn’t matter.

But as Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner demonstrates, visual art is a lot tougher to explain on film than music. This is, of course, a paradox. Something as visceral and as visually revolutionary as Turner’s art ought to enable a director to show us what’s in the painter’s head as it turns into paint. But although the movie has gathered awards and some rave reviews I, for one, never felt I was close to seeing this happen. One problem is that Leigh doesn’t find a way of setting up an opposing force that Turner is fighting against and, by fighting it, allows him to erupt as Mozart did with bursts of in-your-face defiance.

Another problem is biographical. Leigh has restricted our view of Turner’s creative habitat to virtually one location, the Thames estuary. This has a certain logic. It was Turner’s seascapes that were his most radical discovery in his art, the wildness of light in sky, cloud and water that could never find repose, always changing by the second. Somehow Turner nailed that one second of surpassing natural force. What was the trick? The star, Timothy Spall, as Turner did, straps himself to the mast of a storm-lashed vessel in order to feel its terror as well as to find a way to describe it in paint.

But there was a lot more to Turner than a masochistic mission to understand the elements. Many of his big paintings were of a very different becalmed, untroubled and idealized world, the Europe of the romantic and classical imagination – ancient Roman ruins, iridescent days on the Venetian lagoons and the intimidating majesty of the Alps, all favorites of the aristocratic aesthetes who made the Grand Tour pilgrimages to Europe and of the newly risen 19th century mercantile class who collected Turners.

In the current exhibition of late Turner works at the Tate Britain in London – where the curators have deftly demolished the idea that Turner’s more vaporous paintings were sentient forerunners of Impressionism – there’s Turner’s death mask. It reveals sharp, almost hawkish fine-boned features that tally with the descriptions by his contemporaries of an astringent appearance and manner.

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I was as gripped by this mask as I was by the paintings. I was looking for the impossible connection, trying to will the face to come to life and begin moving, most of all to see the intensity of his gaze – the gaze of a piercing human lens that consumed light and color and remade it in ways that only he could. It was a vain effort, of course. The mask was just that – contours but concealment, too.

The movie suffers the same frustration. It can’t assemble even a replica of Turner, let alone take us into that optical core of his genius. To be sure, the casting of a biopic doesn’t require that the actor is a close physical match to the subject. Actors can inhabit the person through the sheer force of their assimilation. But Timothy Spall’s face is not even close to Turner’s – it’s far more fleshy and porcine. Physically, he goes for the coarseness in Turner, not the refinement. His Turner is a grunting, belching, and rutting maverick.

Spall has said that in his deep research for the role he found that every picture of Turner looked different, and every eyewitness account was different. That’s too much of a generalization – Turner was not a dissembler, but he had a different effect on different people and his personality changed as he aged. In the last decades of his life he became reclusive and bellicose. This is the Turner that Leigh and Spall deliver. Spall says that, faced with the contradictions in the research, they created an amalgam of them.

But this is a parochial version of a worldly man. The film’s view of him is limited mostly to that great boiling estuary and occasional cantankerous visits to the Royal Academy in London. This confines Spall to a performance that often degenerates into a Dickensian misanthrope, especially when cruelly dissing his own family. But although Turner never forgot the turpitude of his childhood among the fleshpots of 18th century Covent Garden he became a prodigious cultural polymath, making arduous European journeys, following and respecting the classical Italian roots of painting even as he steadily abandoned them.

Because the movie doesn’t give us the bigger Turner it doesn’t give us, literally, the bigger picture. Perhaps that was always going to prove too big to nail. I think it’s significant that two much more successful films about artists, Ed Harris’s Pollock and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, were about much less protean subjects, and therefore a lot more convincing.

Spall is a distinctive actor at his best in parts where his combination of bulk and energy sit comfortably together – as in Mike Leigh’s romp through the work of the Victorian masters of light opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy Turvy, where he played the baritone Richard Temple and stole the movie in a sequence from The Mikado. He is also mesmerizing in Leigh’s smaller ensemble films where tribal cockney rituals have tragi-comic consequences. For me, however, Mr. Turner leaves Turner’s genius undisturbed in his soul, or wherever it sought refuge from explanation.

In contrast to Turner’s life, the documentary record on Alan Turing is detailed and deep. But does that bring the movie any closer to explaining his mind?

The filmmakers take the Amadeus approach. They double down on the plot device of a lone visionary opposed by conventional hierarchies. Turing’s first opponent is a doltish military bureaucracy that is totally ill-equipped to accommodate anyone with Turing’s intellect and singleness of purpose. (This plot line is nicely served when, near to defeat, Turing’s project is saved by that legendary destroyer of bureaucracies, Winston Churchill.) His second opponent is more amorphous but, in the end, more lethal: institutionalized homophobia.

As a result of showing this brilliant man broken by primitive penal treatment, the film leaves the audience more shocked by Turing’s fate at the hands of the police and the courts than enlightened about the real wonders of his genius. In fact, the script accepts the reality that there is no way of making Turing’s mind accessible.

We know that his brain spins numbers of great magnitude until they yield patterns and then he designs a machine able to analyze those patterns much faster than he – or anyone else – can. But the closest we can get to this unique mating of human intellect and mechanical programming is a view of the many rotating wheels of the Turing Machine, the digital computer in embryonic form, a massive assembly of found objects with wiring like bundled nerves, shaking and flashing with the strain. Visually, it’s a metaphor. As in the case of Turner, the core of the intellect is missing. In the role, Benedict Cumberbatch becomes Turing in a way that Spall never becomes Turner, but it’s a brilliant impersonation, not a revelation.

Of the three films, the most English by far is the Hawking story. There’s a moment when Hawking’s wife Jane, cracking under the pressures of caring for her progressively disabled husband, is told by her mother that she might feel better if she joined the church choir.

“That’s the most English thing I have ever heard,” says Jane, as exasperated and conscious of the absurdity as the screenwriter wishes us to be. It reminds me of an uncle of mine who said the London Blitz was irritating. I was never sure whether this was phlegm or the onset of lunacy.

And, indeed, this turns out to be a story about two diseases. The first is the motor-neuron disease in which Hawking’s muscles atrophy while his brain remains unharmed. The second is strangled tongue disease, the English inability to express real feelings in conversation. Hawking is surrounded by people who won’t come to the point, who are full of the kind of circumlocutory chatter that Hugh Grant can turn into farce in an instant.

The initial courtship between Hawking and Jane stutters and nearly founders because their mouths can’t say what their hearts feel. Whether they meet for decorous afternoon tea or glancing encounters in a pub, the spark doesn’t ignite until Hawking is diagnosed and told he has two years to live, at which point Jane vows to come aboard and help him beat the sentence. (This was in 1964, and Hawking is now 72, and still rattling the cosmos.)

I think the stuffed shirt propriety is overdone. In the early 1960s Cambridge University was a hotbed of cultural and social insurrection. A first wave of political satirists, including Peter Cook and David Frost, appeared at the university’s Footlights Club, and they were followed later by several wits who would go on to create the Monty Python phenomenon. The only whiff of this in the movie is a very brief scene where Hawking is carried up a flight of steps and plonked down in the lap of a throned and glowering Queen Victoria statue.

Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, had an advantage that Spall and Cumberbatch did not: the subject was still alive and available for study. The two didn’t meet until shortly before filming. Redmayne did most of the talking – discussing, for example, something not said in the film, that Hawking was born 300 years to the day after Galileo. (There is no hint of reincarnation.) Hawking spoke only eight or nine sentences, but one result was that the script was revised to show Hawking’s wife translating for the outside world when Hawking’s electronically simulated voice comes over like a garbled audio tape.

Hawking, of course, came to global fame with his book A Brief History of Time. In the film, before he recognizes the mysteries of time as his calling, his tutor in Cambridge takes him to the Cavendish Laboratory, where in 1917 a New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, first split the atom and put nuclear physics on the map. Thus inspired does Hawking choose his own vocation, which is driven by a belief that he will find the single elegant equation that will explain everything – the everything being the universe and its origin.

Familiar tropes are used to show Hawking and his contemporaries on their hunt for the ultimate theorem – arcane calculations scribbled on the back of a railway timetable, chalk on a blackboard demonstrating the scary implosion of a black hole, more chalk on blackboards as hypotheses have to be defended or collapse. More clumsily, fireworks stand in for the Big Bang and a potato and peas are invoked to explain relativity.

All this shows the real problem when telling the story of geniuses: exposition. The two scientific stories resort to the equivalent of Mathematics for Dummies andPhysics for Dummies. As for the artist, the great Turner canvases, his watercolors and his sketch books are never allowed to speak. Perhaps, like Hawking searching for his elegant equation, filmmakers will never find the answer. Nothing can be explained without the language to explain it. In movies, that language, visual and verbal, has yet to be mastered.