The Imitation Game
A proper biopic of Alan Turing, with all of the deserved Hollywood bells and whistles, has been due for a long time now, with the famous codebreaker and computer scientist previously having to settle for TV movies. Aside from the somewhat flat Enigma of 2001, the Bletchley Park operation has also never really impacted on the history of film. Well, now it has, with Benedict Cumberbatch, the latest top dog of cinema, stepping into a role that could have been great, or just more chum for Oscar bait season.
Through three crucial periods of his life – lonely school days, being tasked with breaking Nazi Germany’s “Enigma” machine during World War Two and dealing with police investigation of his private life in 1951 – The Imitation Game follows computer science and cryptanalysis genius Alan Turing (Cumberbatch, Alex Lawther), as he deals with his own crippling social awkwardness, his relationship with fellow codebreaker Joan (Keira Knightley) and the crushing pressure of his hidden homosexuality.
There’s always the potential problem with biopics, and especially biopics of figures as venerated as Turing – who, we must admit, is seen very much as a martyr-like figure in this day and age – that they will ere too much towards sympathy and glorification. The Imitation Game, in my view, manages to avoid this pitfall, for the most part, and crafts an unflinchingly honest and deeply disturbing portrait of this utterly tragic figure, a man whose life personified some of the best and worst aspects of the period that he lived. Its history might be a tad on the iffy side certainly, but as a biopic, as an in-depth look at Alan Turing and what drove him, The Imitation Game passes the most important test with flying colours.
Framed as an extended flashback, as Turing outlines his life to an inquisitive detective in 1951, The Imitation Game focuses for the most part on those World War Two days, showcasing the growth of Turing from being a total outcast in terms of socialising and interpersonal relationships, to the leader of a group of men and women that radically altered the balance of power in the conflict. That evolution of leadership is one of the film’s most intriguing aspects, watching Turing as he casually fires a few of his compatriots upon being put in charge, only to be pushed into being a better man.
At times the whole thing seems like a cliché-ridden railroad of a plot, but this belies some of the subtleties in showing how Turing really becomes the head man of Bletchley Park. The process is a painful one – one of the film’s most memorable yet awkward scenes is of a trying-too-hard Turing attempting to tell a joke to get his fellow codebreakers to like him – but binds Turing closer to the Joan character, and manages to make Turing, portrayed as likely suffering either from or something very akin to Aspergers – someone who the audience can actually relate to and sympathise with, beyond the facts of the historical record. It is, in fact, the “Imitation Game” of the title, nominally a reference to Turing’s ideas on potential advances in computing and artificial intelligence, but really about his own efforts to greater “fit in” to society, by trying to act like others while never really being like them at all. Camaraderie, leadership, heterosexual love, all of it is a form of imitation for Turing.
The “romantic” plot, largely an invention it would seem, stutters a bit at times, but I found it very worthwhile for most of The Imitation Game, allowing a spotlight to placed on the women of Bletchley Park, allowing Turing to exhibit a growing ability to form an interpersonal bond, and allowing the spectre of Turing’s homosexuality to cast a shadow over everything that he does. I say “spectre” there because this is how The Imitation Game chooses to portray that aspect of Turing’s life, and I think it fits: his sexual orientation made his life harder, his relationships more difficult and resulted in his ostracism from a society that all too willingly forgot the debt it owed to him. You don’t need sex scenes to get the point across: Turing’s homosexuality, in the story of his life, is more to do with secrecy, repression and public perception of “indecency”. In that way, The Imitation Game approaches this dicey topic properly.
I think that when it comes right down to it, biopics are supposed to leave you with the sense that you’ve learned something profound about the subject matter. For me, I would say that The Imitation Game made me realise how sad, and sometimes pathetic, the life of Alan Turing was, even in the moments of his greatest success. I don’t just mean at the end of his life, as he was hounded into an untimely suicide, but in all aspects of his life. Like so many like him, Turing was a deeply anti-social and lonely man, whose private demons prevented him from forging the kind of healthy friendships necessary for sound mental well being.
The Imitation Game captures this problem intimately, and lays bare the reality of how difficult Turing’s life was, weighed down by the size of his own genius, his responsibilities and the gnawing fear of his sexual orientation becoming public knowledge. The Imitation Game then, is a desperately sad film, one that struggles to provide any crumb of comfort for those hoping to see a positive element, imbued with a solid pessimism, which is bound to turn some off.
The film has its more obvious flaws. The sections focusing on a young Turing at school seemed superfluous to me, telling us nothing about Turing that we didn’t learn elsewhere or that we couldn’t reasonably infer. The relationship with Christoper Morcom is important to Turing’s formative years of course, but maybe not to a larger biopic of his life. At times too, I felt that the historical changes – the ignoring of American and Polish contributions to the Enigma cracking, some elements of Soviet espionage and the mucking about of timelines for starters – were a detriment to the story being told, even if the “spirit” of the history remained intact. There’s also a lately introduced moral quandary aspect to Bletchley Park’s work, which I felt was a little clumsy. Worse maybe is the aggrandisement of Bletchley Park, a common thing really, into an operation that potentially ended the war years early: something I disagree with for many reasons, but which, regardless, makes the common mistake of treating Bletchley Park like it operated in a vacuum.
The Imitation Game would still be forgettable enough, despite its positives, if it wasn’t for the performance of Cumberbatch in the lead role. The term “born to play” is probably thrown around a bit too much, but I think it fits here. It would have been easy for Cumberbatch to turn Turing into a 1940’s version of his Sherlock Holmes, with similarities in intellect and inter-personal relationships. But instead Turing goes into, as noted, much more sad and pathetic territory, crafting an expert performance of a man who struggles to understand the emotions of those he faces, even as he struggles to communicate his own properly. Here is a portrayal of autism to be studied and praised, one that tugs at the heartstrings as it provokes the most wrenching kind of awkwardness. I think only somebody as imminently talented as Cumberbatch could have pulled this off, a character who’s every waking moment is dominated by the dichotomy between his mental strengths and mental weaknesses, by a constant battle of worry and stress, where every conversation is another war to be fought with himself and his worse nature.
Knightley shines in the central supporting role. Creating a viable romance sub-plot for Turing was hard work, but the increasingly friendly and then overtly loving interaction between the two is another of The Imitation Game’s great strengths, with Cumberbatch and Knightley playing off each other wonderfully, with a resolution that is both fitting and satisfying for the audience, reinforcing the encroaching loneliness of Turing’s life even as Knightley’s Joan illustrates the unstoppable tide of women’s liberation.
The rest of the cast isn’t quite as good, relegated to rather empty supporting roles in the face of the amount of screentime given to Cumberbatch and Knightley. Matthew Goode and Allen Leech are decent as the more notable codebreakers working beside Turing, but lack proper agency of their own as characters: Goode’s Alexander is really just a ladies’ man archetype and Leech’s Cairncross suffers from a clumsily executed sub-plot that pops up too long into the film. Mark Strong has little more than a throwaway spymaster part, and Charles Dance is around to look stern and provide an obstacle, little more. Rory Kinnear was actually a bit more impressive than all of them, as the nosy Manchester detective trying to find out what Alan Turing “really did during the war”.
Morten Tyldum’s direction is solid, if not especially beautiful or groundbreaking. A simple change of filters helps to mark out each time period, and the in-depth recreation of the various environments where Turing operated helps to seal the films feeling of authenticity. But the cinematography is really nothing to write home about, with the basic cuts back and forth sometimes making The Imitation Game seem more like an adapted stage play. The emphasis is indeed on character over spectacle, which I suppose is as it should be for biopic. It is only in small moments, like a conversation between Turing and Cairncross in the pub or in the films very last shot, that the direction really looks in any way noteworthy.
Graham Moore’ script is a lot better. It was top of the “Black List” back in 2011, and thankfully hasn’t fallen foul of that industry survey’s sometimes jinx-like effect (one of the other high rated scripts from that year, adapted this year, was the critically panned Grace Of Monaco). Instead, we get wordplay that sounds just perfect for Turing, really instilling the sense of a man who struggles to emote to those around him, and whose inability to do anything other than take things at face value is a crippling defect. But where it gets really good is how Turing changes, into a man who can exist socially better, thanks to Joan, before regressing into solitude and mental instability, all of it with the right voice, the fight frame of mind. Whether it’s denying his closeness to Christopher Morcom as a child, awkwardly expressing romantic interest in Joan or failing to casually dismiss the effects of his chemical castration, Turing is written perfectly. Some of the other cast members could be a bit better, but as with the general levels of performance and the visual focus, they are treated as supplementary players by this script. With the quality of the words mixed with Cumberbatch’s delivery, The Imitation Game is able to get away with this.
Alexandre Desplat’s score, in line with most of those he has done this year, isn’t anything to get too worked up about. Much like his work on The Monuments Men, it’s a decent accompaniment at its best and somewhat forgettable at its worst. The Imitation Game isn’t a film that needs a thrilling or Oscar-level score anyway, and the low key aspect of the music suits the story being told, where symphonic accompaniment might actually detract from the frequently solitary and pessimistic air.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Yeah, I don’t buy this “Bletchley Park shortened the war by two to four years” thing. My comment on not operating in a vacuum – as so many like to portray Bletchley Park – is meant to point at the people who seized the Enigma machine in the first place, the U-Boat hunting techniques developed independently by Allied navies and the gigantic disadvantage, in terms of numbers and industrial capacity, the Axis powers faced as early as the end of 1941. Bletchley Park helped, and shortened the war, but they had a lot of help in doing so too.
-The attempt to enforce a moral quandary on the codebreakers, who find themselves playing God with the information they get from a broken Enigma, didn’t work for me at all. Higher people in the food chain would have been making that call.
-Yes, Cairncross was, indeed, giving information to the Soviets under the table. But it’s unlikely Turing knew about it, and even when he did, it didn’t seem to really mean much to the overall plot, other than some vague and ill-formed point about people in secret agencies having secrets.
-Oh, the end of Turing’s life. How unjust, how sickening, how terribly unfair. Leaving aside my own negative feelings towards the practise of historical apologising, The Imitation Game outlines, in vivid detail, the terrible process at the heart of Britain laws against “indecency”, and how it wrecked so many lives. That Turing willingly embraces chemical castration, to stay close to “Christopher”, is the terrible final full stop to a tortured life.
-At points the Turing/Joan relationship crosses into firm cliché territory, like when he fake insults her in order to end their engagement. But their final scene together, where she desperately tries to raise his flagging spirits, would make any sentimentality worthwhile.
–The Imitation Game doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with its closing stages though. The last scene has a weirdly positive vibe to it, before noting Turing’s suicide around a year later. Maybe they wanted our last look at Turing to be a vaguely happy one, a brief respite from the depression that would end up pushing him to suicide. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting. I don’t think so though.
The Imitation Game is a haunting, thought provoking film. In terms of other World War Two era pictures I’ve seen this year, it’s a far way above the tawdry and dull The Monuments Men, while maybe not having the same impact as Fury (hard to compare those two, but I’d just about give Fury the nod, for a lot of reasons). The Imitation Game is, beyond anything else, a well made look at the life of Alan Turing, a man whose accomplishments are more than deserving of this kind of treatment. An evaluation of his life and condemnation of the manner in which he died should be appropriate responses. And The Imitation Game is able to reach that height because of the stirring central performance of Cumberbatch, which is sure to get at least an Oscar nomination, the quality of the scriptwork which supplemented it and the well presented story that they both drive forward. The rest of the cast is mixed, elements of the overall plot are a little unnecessary or not fully exploited and the visual direction only gets as high as g# being steady. But The Imitation Game rises above its problems and eclipses them with the quality on display elsewhere, a suitable tribute to Alan Turing, the codebreaker, the cryptanalyst, the friend, the homosexual, the victim and the human being. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of StudioCanal and The Weinstein Company).