Or, the one where Benedict Cumberbatch carries what is otherwise a relatively generic wartime biopic.
Even if the Weinstein Company logo never flashed across the screen at the beginning of The Imitation Game, a trained eye would have no problem identifying it as a “Weinstein film”. The Weinstein brothers, dating back to their Miramax days, are infamous for acquiring promising indies and, through both strategic campaigning and strict editing, turning them into Oscar darlings. Some recent examples of this are Philomena, Silver Linings Playbook, The Artist, and The King’s Speech. Judging from precursor awards and industry buzz, The Imitation Game appears to be next in line, and should be viewed as a serious Best Picture contender.
However, the interesting question isn’t if this film will be viewed as one of the years best, but rather, whether or not it should be. That mystery, much like the coded settings for the Nazi’s enigma machine that drives the film conflict, is tough to crack. In many ways The Imitation Game is as good as anything to hit cinemas in recent memory. But it in others, it does little to separate itself from the plethora of formulaic historical biopics that have unfortunately become a bankable trend for Hollywood, in terms of both financial and critical success.
Starting with the positive; Alan Turing truly is one of the worlds oft-forgotten heroes and it’s great that his incredible story was finally told in an accessible way. Quick rundown: Turing was a British mathematician who built what was essentially the worlds first computer and used it to crack the code/settings for the Nazi’s enigma machines, therefore interpreting messages, which played an integral part in the Allies winning World War II. A decade later, Turing was convicted of indecency due to him being a homosexual and was put through an experimental drugging treatment, known as “chemical castration”, which lead to him taking his own life a year after that. NYU grad Graham Moore adapted a biography of Turing into a script that sat on Hollywood’s “Black List”, an annual list of the best unproduced screenplays, for a while. Warner Bros bought the script, intending to producing the film with Leonardo Dicaprio as the lead. That fell through and the rights were sold to Black bear Productions, who went with Morten Tyldum as director and Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing.
Shame on me for getting three paragraphs into this without mentioning Cumberbatch, one of todays great working actors, who gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance in The Imitation Game. Cumberbatch, through the rushed cadence in his voice and cocky yet anguished look on his face, has this uncanny ability to come off as the smartest guy in the room while still emitting a sense of emotional insecurity. There are multiple scenes in The Imitation Game where the script requires Turing to show exactly that. It’s as if this role was written for Cumberbatch. But, of course, it wasn’t. Alan Turing was a real dude. And like De Niro in Raging Bull, Denzel in Malcolm X, or Dicaprio in The Aviator; Cumberbatch plays the role in a way that is both an homage to the actual man and an undeniably potent display of his own dramatic talent.
The supporting players, specifically Keira Knightley as the films sole female presence and Matthew Goode as the antagonist-turned-ally, do a fine job as well. The slick editing allows the story to jump through three timelines, basically before-during-after the war, in a seamless manner. The score builds tension despite the real “action” just being a bunch of people smarter than you or me trying to figure things out. The sets and costumes do a fine job capturing the period. There is so much to love about The Imitation Game, which makes its flaws even more frustrating.
For starters, I can’t help but feel like this is a movie I’ve seen a hundred times before. The narrative tries to be unique and at times succeeds thanks to the editing, but is ultimately a simple “childhood to tragic death” biopic. Many of the themes brought up in the scenes with a young Turing, even EXACT lines of dialogue, pop back up in later decades in a manner that is so forced the word “campy” would come to come to mind if The Imitation Game wasn’t intended as a serious film. This is rather insulting to the audience. Individual scenes in the film are strong enough for the viewer to make note of things without explicitly being told to do so. We don’t need Turing to say “I’m leaving” when he exits a room, or “I don’t understand conversation”. Turing’s social confusion and intellectual arrogance, thanks to the work of Cumberbatch, are clear. So why is half of the films dialogue spent telling us this?
The Imitation Game is also so concerned with getting to the finish line and cracking the code that it fails to slow down and appreciate the journey, which in turn makes some its strongest scenes resonate with the viewer less than they should. The character conflict for the films first half is that the other code-breakers aren’t working well with Turing because they don’t like him, therefore nothing is getting done. Turing is, admittedly, very pompous and difficult to like for most of the way. Joan Clarke (Knightley) explains to Turing that his co-workers will be a lot more productive if they do like him. So how is this character conflict, the one that drove the first half of the movie, resolved?
Turing brings them apples the next day. That’s right, apples. In the scene after that, all of his coworkers are defending Turing and risking their own jobs/freedom when the bosses come and threaten to shut the whole thing down. It’s a lazy resolution to an originally intriguing conflict, and I found myself struggling to hold back the laughter when it all went down. From that point on, character does not matter. It’s all about cracking the code and getting to the finish line, holding the viewers hand the entire way.
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I’d have to see the first cut or read the script to find out for sure, but it’s likely that The Imitation Game didn’t end up being the type of movie it set out to be. The basic premise would indicate that the film is a dark character drama. Don’t get it twisted. The Imitation Game, though skillfully made and acted, is a tight Hollywood thriller. It clocks in at under two hours long (with credits). While this is convenient for casual audiences and awards voters who get sent bundles of screeners this time of year and simply don’t have time to watch them all, it causes the film to end in a peculiar spot. After the war ends, The Imitation Game rushes to get to its final scene, which is a happy moment of all the characters together celebrating while text flashes across the screen telling us things it could have showed us given another twenty minutes or so.
Oh, that ending. Alan Turing committed suicide because of what the British government did to him despite his heroic contributions. If not for a line of text at the end, viewers of The Imitation Game wouldn’t know this. This film ends happy with drinking and hugging and laughing. The ending, and perhaps the whole upbeat tone of the film, don’t fit the actual story of Alan Turing’s life.
Turing’s sexuality was essentially ignored, which would be fine, if the film didn’t try to get political in that ending text. There were some homoerotic undertones in the scenes with a young Turing and a few VERY brief conversations when he was an adult. But Turing’s “secret”, perhaps what made him struggle so much socially, wasn’t explored until it became convenient. This is a film about a man cracking a code, not about sexuality. Again, that’s fine. But The Imitation Game does juuuust enough at the end to make sure audiences, and voters, remember that Turing was gay, despite the film trying to hide that fact for most of its run time.
The Imitation Game is well worth the price of admission for its performances and artistry. Movie lovers, and history lovers, will find plenty to enjoy. It’s a tightly wound film filled with tension that won’t force you to think or stomach some of the darker content it glides over. It can function as a period piece, a thriller, and a performance showcase for its star. The Imitation Game is a good movie. But given its premise and the talent involved, it probably should have been a great one.