Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (UK); December 25th, 2014 (US)
Genre: Biography; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley
I saw The Imitation Game last year and was too caught up in other work to jot down some thoughts in a semi-coherent manner. This review, then, comes significantly later than it should have and, despite still possessing a few pages of notes designed to jog the memory, I’m now struggling to recall much of the film. That’s the main problem here. The Imitation Game is just unmemorable. It’s not a time issue either — the piece left as much to be desired back in December as it does now. Of course, the story of Alan Turing is an incredibly memorable one but that has nothing to do with this film per se (rather, it’s because his life actually happened and was shocking in and of itself).
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, a British mathematician and cryptanalyst courted by his country to solve the seemingly impenetrable Nazi Enigma code. The film takes place at the peak of World War II, but you wouldn’t have guessed it if not for the occasional reference. At one point, problem solving team member Peter (Matthew Beard) refers to that big battle thing happening far from the otherwise serene Bletchley Park: “There are actual soldiers out there trying to win an actual war.” We don’t see enough, or at the very least feel enough, of this supposed ongoing war. It’s as if all the events on-screen are unfolding on a remote island as opposed to an island entrenched in a horrendous, deadly human struggle.
Returning to more local matters, we watch as a whole host of obstacles are thrown in front of Turing — those well-known ones related to his private life, but also professional obstacles that simply do not make sense. Charles Dance’s Commander Alistair Denniston, who is overseeing the operation at Bletchley Park, essentially becomes a less brutal version of Tywin Lannister as he dishes out ultimatums to Turing and his team, threatening to shut down their potentially life-saving efforts. “Our patience has expired,” he groans. But why? Surely it’d be wise to keep the process going irrespective of how long success is taking. The film doesn’t address this awkward stance enough, and as such we’re left with a weird sense of internal squabbling that doesn’t chime well given the war climate.
For the most part, emotionally devastating moments — at least, that’s what they should be — are presented in a fairly generic manner. Graham Moore’s screenplay lacks imagination. A ship sinking debate is one of the more morally dubious scenes but you can see the ambiguity coming from a mile off. Since the film is based on a true story it is very possible that parts such as the one referred to above are reflected with genuine truthfulness, their blunt coincidence thus horrible to even consider. However, Moore and director Morten Tyldum set up the majority of these would-be taut interactions too easily. The ship sinking argument feels like a Hollywood moment when it should be the complete antithesis – dirty and righteously murky.
There is a lot fuelling the narrative and as such the film begins to confuse itself as it juggles a number of different layers (any codebreakers around to sort this mess out?). We touch upon the intricacies of gender politics, man versus machine, sexual orientation and the war climate, each with varying impetus. The technological struggle between Turing’s team and the Enigma machine is intriguing, and when Tyldum focuses on the mathematician’s private life the piece flourishes with authenticity and solemn gravitas. To its credit, The Imitation Game does effectively capture the painstaking conclusion to Turing’s life. Perhaps singling out only two elements instead of trying to engage with a handful of themes would’ve yielded something more concise and coherent for Tyldum.
Having said all that, the performances from many of the cast are very good — one or two are particularly noteworthy — and these keep the piece bubbling over (they also undoubtedly had a hand in shooting the film into wide-netted Oscar contention). Cumberbatch bumbles as well as ever playing the intellectually gifted Turing, whilst at the same time empowering the periodically unaccommodating man with increasing resilience and vigour. He is the perfect fit for the role and Cumberbatch really comes into his own when reflecting the weightier points of Turing’s life.
Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard complete the team of puzzle solvers. The latter duo don’t have as much to do but as Hugh Alexander, Goode carries out the brazen and often unimpressed act to a T. It is Keira Knightley, though, who has the most impact opposite Cumberbatch. She plays Cambridge graduate Joan Clarke who develops a close bond with Turing throughout the film. In lesser hands the role might’ve fallen foul of poor characterisation but Knightley has steel in her eyes, Joan often the person bearing the strongest will.
The film doesn’t really match up to the awards recognition it has been receiving over the past few months, but it does manage to be a suitably uplifting-turned-demoralising piece. I reckon that has more to do with Turing’s real life struggles than how the picture depicts them. Maybe The Imitation Game isn’t as dreary as I recall, but I’m not recalling much.