“Balancing on the edges of falling into clichés, stuffiness, and patronization but never quite falling in head-on, The Imitation Game still manages to be sufficiently compelling.”
by Ken B.
Existing precariously, balancing on the edges of falling into clichés, stuffiness, and patronization but never quite falling in head-on, The Imitation Game still manages to be sufficiently compelling, strongly acted, and handsomely mounted from a technical perspective. Incredibly safe in many of its respects and at times so awards-baity that you want to scream, it’s a minor miracle that many of the film’s positive aspects are able to emerge from the screen relatively unscathed. If you’re tired of these kinds of biopics, as film critic Alonso Duralde once put it, “coming to an awards show near you” year after year, it’s going to be easy to be turned off by this – it doesn’t pretend to be anything else but prestige end-of-year material. But if you’re willing to put your predispositions over these kinds of standard levels aside (at least to the degree one can), you will be able to appreciate what it still has.
The Imitation Game dramatizes the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British mathematician who devised a machine to crack the Enigma code, an encryption method used by the Nazis during World War II, said to be impossible to decipher. When the main heft of the 114 minute film begins, it is 1939, and Turing is 27 years old. He travels to Bletchley Park, where he manages to get Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) to approve his entry into the team of codebreakers that are working to break the Enigma. After appealing to Winston Churchill himself for funding, Turing is able to gain authority over his fellow codebreakers, and narrow it down to a core set consisting of Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a late arrival who is able to prove her ability in a publicly held search for additional support. With this quartet with him, but not always necessarily for him, Turing begins to develop his most well known invention, the device used to finally crack the code and start winning the war.
The film’s director, Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, is able to lead a cast and crew that definitely help the movie’s case. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is fascinating – a spectrum-bound and antisocial yet driven individual whose insistence and hard work in the face of the worst proves extremely important. Keira Knightley is also quite good as Joan Clarke, who proves to be an unexpectedly big part of the process to crack the code. The movie also benefits from its behind-the-camera talent: Editor William Goldenberg is able to deliver a tightly paced and tense cut, and the great Alexandre Desplat has composed an equally taught and tonally fitting score. The sets and costumes are presumably period accurate, if not especially note worthy.
As you probably know, Turing was gay, and in 1940s England, that just wasn’t something you were supposed to be. Following the war, while the extent of his contributions to the forces were still classified, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952 (confirmation he was in a relationship with another man), and was given the option to serve jail time or undergo chemical castration. Choosing the latter option, Turing’s professional opportunities all but vanished as a result of the charges, and he committed suicide in 1954, a man destroyed by the very same government that he helped save less than a decade earlier. When it comes to how the film handles this, Graham Moore’s screenplay has all of the vital information in place, but there has been a degree of controversy over whether or not The Imitation Game consciously attempts to give Turing’s sexuality a back-seat treatment, and even worse, if it tries to romanticize the relationship he had with Joan Clarke (the two were engaged in real life, but obviously nothing came of it). My view after watching the film is that there is no nefarious “closeting” of the onscreen depiction (additionally, the script adds the subtle touch of Turing calling the machine he develops “Christopher”, after Christopher Morcom, an old school friend of Turing’s and his first love), but multiple scenes where heterosexual characters inform Turing that he cannot come out to anyone else in such a homophobic environment, with the film acting as if a gay man in that era wouldn’t already know that, prove to be uncomfortable and condescending before being enlightening or informative.
Despite the aforementioned issues, and occasionally falling back on groan-worthy tropes and lines (a recurring eye-roller: “Sometimes it’s the people we don’t imagine anything of who do the things we can’t imagine”, which drips with slightly higher amounts of duh every time it returns to the dialogue), The Imitation Game is still mostly successful in the places where it counts the most, highlighting a figure of recent history who should really be more prominently known as a hero when you think about it. Alan Turing’s work, while not only significantly shortening WWII, lead the way for the development of modern computers, and as a result, untold numbers of further creations and sciences. And while Tyldum’s movie isn’t anything approaching an ideal or especially triumphant biography on this person, its intentions are noble enough and its components are skillful to the point that it’s still accessible and welcome.