Cast: Benedict Cummberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
Director: Morten Tyldum
Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Like an airbrushed greeting card from a forgotten era of history, The Imitation Game is a well-mounted, though decidedly tame, rendering of an extraordinary figure. There's certainly something to be said about Benedict Cumberbatch's terrific turn as Alan Turing, widely considered the mastermind behind modern computers and whose revolutionary inventions paved the way for the British government to help win WWII, but Morten Tyldum's biopic is ultimately much too cute and cuddly to pack the punch it clearly intends. Turing's electromechanical device that eventually cracked the German Enigma Code and how that factored into shortening the war and saving millions of lives, is a wholly fascinating and relevant story. The film, however, never really illuminates the process of building this code-breaking machine and exactly how it operates, instead distilling Turing's genius into carefully edited montages of note-scribbling and meticulous wire-plugging. His closeted homosexuality, meanwhile, informs much of the film's subtext, but is never delved into with any kind of genuine insight. It's almost as if screenwriter Graham Moore, adapting Andrew Hodges' novel Alan Turing: The Enigma, treats Turing's sexuality as an infantile footnote during a time when being gay in Britain was literally a crime.
The film jumps around in time, beginning in 1951 just before Turing is prosecuted for his homosexuality and forced by the courts to undergo experimental hormonal therapy, with a snooping cop (Rory Kinnear) cornering a frazzled Turing in his apartment after an apparent break-in. There's also flashbacks to his childhood in the 1920s, where his fixation with a classmate will later inform both his sexual preferences as well as his obsessive work. Tyldum's time-jumping tangents are part and parcel of most well-oiled biopics, and much of this material is necessary in terms of understanding at least partially where the lead protagonist is coming from. However, though Cumberbatch is very adept at evoking a combination of social awkwardness and abrasive hubris, the film reduces him to little more than an autistic-leaning prodigy. Meanwhile, his staff of the most prominent code-breakers and mathematicians of their time are thinly sketched, if well played, by a game cast that includes Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and Kiera Knightly.
For his part, Goode smolders and spouts quippy dialogue, while Knightly is given the tough task of playing cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, who leaves her sheltered home life in order to work with Turing's difficult genius. Truthfully, though Clarke was a real person, her actual involvement in breaking the Enigma Code remains debatable, and Knightly labors hard to bring a pro-feminist angle to the proceedings which very well may have been absent from the real-life event. There's even a faux engagement between Clarke and Turing, meant to keep her on the project as well as deflect rumors of his homosexuality. This is a fascinating event; opening up a myriad of intriguing questions in terms of gender roles, societal norms, and sexuality, but the film has little time for it. Instead, much of the running time is dedicated to Turing tinkering with his code-breaking machine (affectionately named "Christopher") while alienating those around him, including Charles Dance's mercurial head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), who occasionally pops up threatening to end the entire project.
With a propulsive, piano-laden score by Alexandre Desplat, glossy cinematography from Oscar Faura, and a technically impressive and emotionally resonant performance from Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a perfectly acceptable bit of Middlebrow cinema that goes out of it's way to be as unoffensive as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there's little doubt the film will play like gangbusters for a mainstream audience, informing us of an incredible piece of history that's either been forgotten or widely not known. Still, it's disappointing that the film lacks the intellectual rigor and psychoanalytic depth of the man it's trying to depict. The script comes off extremely formulaic; with dialogue such as "He's a poof, not a spy!" being especially cringe-inducing, and despite Cumberatch and Knightley's best efforts, they can't quite transcend the generic biopic material. Alan Turing was a complex personality; egotistical, shy, brilliant, tortured, but The Imitation Game strips away most of this complexity and is content to simply give us an old-fashioned prestige thriller with casual nods toward embracing the diversity in all of us.