Review: The Imitation Game

Posted on December 14, 2014

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The Imitation Game makes for a brisk, well-acted and entertaining film firmly ensconced in the “prestige” category reserved for the major film awards-seekers. It does nothing to upset or challenge the standard historical drama/biopic genre conventions it wallows in, but it doesn’t pretend it has to. It’s a confident and occasionally engrossing movie, but in the end, it might have been better if they’d simply titled it “Enigma.” Unfortunately, that title was already used for an earlier film on the topic of English World War II codebreakers, but without having seen that effort, we’re going to go out on a limb and suggest its use would have been more appropriate here. Whether by design or as a result of some questionable filmmaking choices, The Imitation Game does not really tell you who Alan Turing was.

To be fair, it’s quite likely that a man like Alan Turing isn’t knowable 60 years after his death because he didn’t allow people to know him as well as he could have while he was alive. Charitably seen, this film is less a story about one man’s life and more a story about secrets in a time when it seemed the world turned on them. The figure of Alan Turing is almost too perfect to not layer metaphors over about espionage and codes and wartime secrets, since he not only was a giant in these areas, but a person whose life was bound and defined by secrets.

The broad strokes are splashed across the screen, of course. The Wikipedia version of the man and his works; a brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst whose very early work in the field of “computing machines” not only earned him the not-unreasonable designation of “the father of computers,” but because of his work in decrypting the German Enigma code, is considered by many to have ended the war several years early, saving millions of lives. He was also a gay man at a time when it was illegal to be so and in the end, in a world where secrets were both necessary and highly dangerous, he was persecuted and hounded for it until he took his own life. Embodied by the smoothly capable Benedict Cumberbatch, who can play difficult geniuses in his sleep by now, we get a well-rendered, but unfortunately puddle-deep look at who the man was. You’ve learned what he did and how he suffered, but as the credits roll on this version of his story, the wall that separated him from his rightful place in history and even from the chance of a happy and long life remains firmly in place.

The problem is, the story of Alan Turing the genius decryption hero and father of computers is enough for one movie; just as the story of Alan Turing, disgraced professor and victim of the times he lives in is enough for another movie. Trying to tell both stories in one movie means one story is going to get short shrift, and (perhaps no suprise here), it’s his personal life and sexuality that wind up kept curiously remote from the audience. It’s not necessarily a reluctance to examine or portray his homosexuality, since the film seems to have a problem giving most of its characters believable inner lives and emotional reactions. There’s a scene at the end of the war, when the cryptoanalysts of Bletchley are told to destroy all evidence of their work, never tell anyone of what they’ve done, and plan not to ever see one another again. They all file quietly out of the room. Later, they’re shown exuberantly burning files and laughing. Nothing about this seemed like normal human responses to what we were seeing onscreen.

Two things save the movie from merely being standard: the performances of leads Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, and the fact that it’s kind of hard to make a story this important, with this much resonance completely boring. Knightley has matured as an actress, bringing a confidence and competence to her performance that makes it seem effortless. It’s impossible to forget you’re looking at Keira Knightley, but you can at least muse while you’re admiring her cheekbones for the thousandth time, “Wow, she’s really nailing this scene.”

As for Cumberbatch’s performance, while it threatened at times to devolve into a series of tics and grimaces, there’s no denying he digs deep into a shallow script and manages to elevate the material by imbuing the character with as much of an inner life as any actor could possibly give such a character. This film’s version of Turing places him somewhere on the autism spectrum (and varies wildly from scene to scene on exactly where he’s placed), which both allows the film to keep him at a remove from the audience while at the same time allowing the actor every chance to unleash all the tricks in his arsenal. It’s an Oscar-worthy (and Oscar-baiting) performance. He and Knightley have a wonderfully easy rapport with each other. Clearly sexless but questionably romantic.

And perhaps that’s part of the issue here. The script gave this character one meaningful long-term relationship and it was a near-romance with a woman that, by many accounts, has been overstated by the film. In addition, his homosexuality isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the film and is never expressed in any real way onscreen save for a flashback to a tragic schoolboy crush. Worst of all, an entirely fictional blackmail subplot is introduced that has Turing committing treason because a Soviet spy knows about his homosexuality. One could argue that the film is more wartime thriller than biopic, but since the major theme is one of keeping secrets and Turing is positioned as someone who’s extremely adept at it because of his sexuality, the absence of a meaningful depiction is somewhat glaring. Even more so because of the way both the film and Turing’s life ended; tragically, hounded to death because he was gay.

Of course a sex scene would have seemed ridiculously out of place in a film like this. We’re not criticizing the lack of one. But Turing is depicted as virtually sexless throughout the film, having only one deep emotional connection of any length with a woman. Other, much lesser characters are given small moments of flirtation here and there that define them as heterosexuals, but except for some note-passing as a schoolboy, Turing is portrayed as chaste and desire-free as a monk, even as the entire film hinges on an opening where he’s robbed by a hustler; something that is hard to reconcile with his depiction for the following 100 minutes or so. As wonderful as Cumberbatch’s performance is in many ways, we can’t help thinking Turing deserved a better, more well-rounded exploration of his life than this film allowed for.

There are choices directors and screenwriters make and it’s worth questioning some of them if there’s a noticeable lack of balance or worse, exploration. It’s possible that some of these could have been  conscious choices in making a film about secrets and withholding, but it’s hard to deny that the film is not as satisfactory as it could have been because of these choices.

 

[Photo credit: The Weinstein Company]

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