The Good: Exceptional acting, Good plot development, Strong protagonist
The Bad: Oppressive mood, Film loses its charm and becomes unpleasant, Underdeveloped supporting characters
The Basics: Set in three distinct points in the life of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game tells the story of one man’s attempts to help Britain win World War II . . . and survive life after the War!
Five down, three to go! In my quest to watch all eight Best Picture Oscar nominees, I am happily nearing the end. Today, I took in The Imitation Game and, if nothing else, 2014 looks like it was a good year for history and biography films (at least as far as The Academy goes). The Imitation Game is one of those films that it tailor-made for Oscar Pandering Season; its cast was carefully assembled from current “it” superstars (Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley) and blended with reliable powerhouses of actors (like Charles Dance), its subject is esoteric (codebreaking) and its British. The Imitation Game is catering to the audience that has been culled in the U.S. by the presence of BBC America on cable and PBS – it’s hard to imagine The Imitation Game getting considered for Best Picture if there were only five slots available.
That said, The Imitation Game is an engaging historical drama that takes the potentially ponderous subject of how a socially-awkward genius helped win World War II and makes it entertaining. Instead of a droll, tech-heavy drama, The Imitation Game is a compelling character study that weaves together a post-WW II story involving codebreaker Alan Turing, the story of how he became the world’s predominant codebreaker and Turing’s somewhat tortured childhood.
Opening in 1951 in Manchester, Alan Turing has a break-in that brings the police. Turing insults the police to get them to leave, which sparks the interest of one of the detectives. Flash back to London in 1939 as the situation between England and Germany devolves into all-out war. Arriving at the secret MI-6’s secret facility at Bletchley Radio Manufacturing, Turing gives a terrible interview with Commander Denniston, but as England’s chief cryptographer, he manages to get onto the team attempting to decrypt German codes. The Germans are using a device called the Enigma, a codemaking/deciphering machine that Turning’s counterpart, Hugh Alexander, calculates has 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 different code possibilities. Turing has poor social skills and while Alexander and the rest of the team focus on breaking the code, Turing designs a machine that can assist them in breaking the code.
After sending a letter to Churchill, Turing is put in charge of the Enigma project, which allows Turing to fire some of the dead weight from his team. After creating a puzzle as a recruiting tool, Turing hires two replacements, including (in an unconventional move for the time, a woman) Joan Clarke and he gets the government to invest the 100,000 pounds he needs to build (essentially) a computer that will figure out the base code for the Enigma. With Joan’s help, Alan becomes more affable to his team and when Turing is suspected of being a spy and his device does not work at the speed Denniston wants, Hugh actually leads the team to support Turing. As the computer works on the equations and the war spreads across England, Turing puts his reputation on the line and his personal desires aside in order to support his attempts to break the Enigma machine’s code.
The Imitation Game is much more about the social and military pressures placed upon Turing than the actual building of the machine or attempts at codebreaking. Turing is a homosexual at a time when such activities were criminalized in the U.K. The purpose of the storyline set in the 1950s seems to be to illustrate that, regardless of his accomplishments in the War, Turing faces a very real, albeit different, threat afterward. As the film moves towards its climax, it becomes a very different film and the strength of The Imitation Game is in how well it makes its transition.
Alan Turing’s life is a tortured one and the brilliance of The Imitation Game is in how Turing struggles to remain free with Joan’s help. Both Joan and Alan are confined by society’s expectations and to keep her working on the Enigma project, Alan offers to marry her. Unfortunately, Turing trusts the absolute wrong person with his truth about his homosexuality and that allows others to exert influence over him . . . and Joan. It is impossible to watch The Imitation Game and not feel ashamed at how arcane laws and viewpoints rob humanity of some of its greatest minds. Turing is condemned to a legally-enforced, medically-induced hell and Joan’s brilliant mind is condemned to a life of mediocrity and “normal” wifely duties following their service to their country.
Oscar Pandering Season loves the tormented soul and Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to portray Turing. Cumberbatch is able to embody all the awkwardness of a genius fish-out-of-water, much like Jim Parsons does on The Big Bang Theory (season seven is reviewed here!). Where Cumberbatch earns his paycheck, though, is in the film’s final act. A far departure from the simple, clinical brilliance fans are used to seeing from him on Sherlock, Cumberbatch is able to embody a man diminished after Turing is sentenced in the 1950s. His scenes opposite Keira Knightley in the last act have an entirely different chemistry to them and both performers play the scenes with a mastery of performance that comes from their body language and eyes that is impressive.
What surprised me about The Imitation Game was how good Matthew Goode was in it! In a film with Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Dance, Goode manages to steal a number of scenes by playing Hugh Alexander with charisma and intelligence that is incredibly watchable. Alexander is characterized as Turing’s equal, but with a more affable personality and that plays well.
What does not play well in The Imitation Game is the imbalance of the dialogue. The film begins with a sense of wit to it; the interview between Turing and Denniston is actually hilarious and it sets the viewer up for a far less heavy film. Unfortunately, after Turing tells a joke to his team, the movie becomes stark and humorless and the joy one takes in the discovery of the life of Turing diminishes almost with each passing minute. Turing’s life was miserable before the film’s first scenes, but the movie was set-up in such a way that it is much more inviting than it becomes. The result, is a movie that lures one in on charm and intrigue and then starts stabbing one repeatedly for the last forty minutes.
Even so, The Imitation Game is a worthwhile film with performances that are worth seeing and direction that makes even the miserable moments cinematic. One just wishes it were a bit more straightforward and honest about what the story was actually about.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Seventh Son
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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