The Imitation Game (2014)
Dir: Morten Tyldum
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” That’s a refrain heard a few times in the historical thriller The Imitation Game and, much like that quote, the movie itself is well-meaning but a little unwieldy. Tying together genres as disparate as WW2-era thrillers, A Beautiful Mind-esque examination of tortured genius, unorthodox romance, and timely social commentary in the package of a biopic, naturally not all elements are given equal heft. Overreaching in some ways and falling short in others, it’s a handsomely mounted production, full of rich period details and bolstered by a strong cast of familiar British faces. Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly unimpeachable as Alan Turing, giving the type of performance that will tip him from well-liked character actor to true A-list leading man. Enjoyable overall and pleasant enough, certain key points of Turing’s life are glossed over in such a perfunctory manner that I can’t help but feel that greatness eludes The Imitation Game, leaving it to settle with good enough.
The problem with most biopics is one of structure – how do you tell a life story in about two hours? Working from a screenplay by Graham Moore based on Andrew Hodges’ book, director Morten Tyldum actually has an elegant solution – a trifurcated structure tracking Alan Turing at three key points in his life. The two framing eras are Alan Turing as a 16-ish young man in boarding school and Turing as an older professor in 1951. These sequences inform and enrich the main narrative that begins in 1939 with Turing as 27-year-old math prodigy going to work as a clandestine code-breaker for Jolly Old England as WW2 reaches a boiling point. His mission – to crack the Enigma cipher used by the German army to encode all their radio messages. He also has to uncover the secret to his heart!
Cumberbatch plays Turing as a bit mannered and stiff, leaning on some on-the-spectrum physicality to convey his unease and separation from normal folks. His portrayal also seems a bit mincing at first, but is ultimately a sustained piece of transformative acting that is mostly deserving of all the praise it will net. Cumberbatch himself seems particularly well-suited to the role with his unblinking eyes and lanky frame that suggest otherworldliness. His Turing can be insensitive and abrupt, but his vulnerability and benevolence, along with a script that gives him many winning moments (some of which I’m sure occurred) offset the harsher elements to make you genuinely root for the him. You’d think that much of the film would follow the minutia of Turing constructing his machine that ultimately broke Enigma, but the human element is often given more attention as we witness Turing grasping at human connections in his own halting way.
The obtuse genius Turing butts heads with the traditional Commander Dennison (Charles Dance) and his fellow code-breakers like Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), but finds unlikely champions in MI6 agent Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong) and fellow fish-out-of-water female cryptologist Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). The interplay between the Bletchly team is spirited and fun, and Turing’s interactions with his more socially adjusted peers provide some pleasant laughs (at one point he awkwardly hands them apples in a naked attempt to curry favour). Knightley is great in one of the only substantial female roles in the film. She’s emotive and bright, and proves to be a great foil for Cumberbatch’s Turing. As a 25-year-old unmarried woman in 1939, Clarke wouldn’t have been allowed to do the work she did were it not for her outwardly romantic relationship with Turing to set her parent’s mind at ease. The problem with this arrangement is the slight hitch that Turing was in fact a closeted homosexual.
Those familiar with Turing’s story are likely aware of his sexuality but the movie treats it as a big reveal. The flashbacks to Turing’s schoolboy days show the beginnings of one of his first real relationships with another man, while the present day (1951) scenes detail the eventual discovery of and persecution for being a homosexual in a supremely intolerant time. Here then is The Imitation Game’s greatest misstep – for all its focus on interpersonal relationships and Turing’s triumphs while solving Enigma, the movie downplays what was a defining element of the story of this man. Without getting too spoilery, there’s a fine scene near the end that Knightley and Cumberbatch nail, but the eventual true-life (and very tragic) fate of Alan Turing is treated almost as an afterthought.
This may come off as wanting the movie to have more social relevance than it earns or simply wishing the story to go in a different direction, but in the context of the film it really does come off as egregious. Worse still, director Tyldum has experience juggling varying genres and tones (in the excellent Headhunters) so it comes as even more of a disappointment. It doesn’t spoil the movie as a whole, which is still generally satisfying and evenly pleasing without challenging the audience too much. Cumberbatch is remarkable and his performance alone nudges this movie into the ‘win’ column. Overall, The Imitation Game most closely resembles The King’s Speech, another middlebrow period piece that won the audience award at The Toronto International Film Festival (with the latter subsequently winning Best Picture). It remains to be seen if Turing’s tale will repeat that feat, but surely the much-lauded genius deserves a greater epilogue than the one given here.