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Review: Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley elevate mediocre "The Imitation Game"
Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a fundamentally flawed and mediocre film elevated by some great performances, lovely cinematography, and a gorgeous musical score. In the strange chemistry that determines a film’s overall effectiveness, I found it enjoyable enough, though even the impressive contributions of artists like Benedict Cumberbatch and Alexandre Desplat are inadequate to make me ignore the shortcomings of Graham Moore’s woefully inadequate script. Moore has distilled the life of British mathematician Alan Turing – who broke Germany’s Enigma code and, in so doing, did a great deal to help the Allies win World War II – into a familiar exercise in Biopic 101, a film that is on the nose, overstuffed, structurally awkward, and with a certain whiff of fiction (or, at least, dramatic oversimplification) about all of it. Turing was a fascinating man, and at times – largely due to the acting and crafts work on display – The Imitation Game lives up to the legacy of this great and tragic figure (Turing, a gay man, was prosecuted for his homosexuality after the war, and committed suicide at the age of 41). More often, the film feels like a lot of passionate, earnest work being done in service of a middling, unexceptional core, and while the film is never less than agreeable, it ultimately never rises above disappointment.
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The problems inherent to The Imitation Game are nothing new. Dialogue that underlines historical significance and overemphasizes character traits and/or motivations at every turn? Check. An attempt to tell as much of the subject’s life story as possible, and in the process diluting the narrative power of nearly every beat? Check. Historical compression and/or dramatic license that stands out even without intimate familiarity of the story being told? Check. It’s all there, pulled right from the classical biopic playbook, and it’s all problematic. My biggest, most consistent complaint with the film is how incessantly it feels it has to smash everything over the audience’s head, having characters directly state the importance of particular moments, or explain character traits through expository dialogue rather than trusting the actors to convey personality through performance. I don’t need Turing’s team of cryptographers to constantly remind me Alan is awkward and antisocial, or for the film to continually underline how the things that make Turing different are the things that make him special. I get that. I would get it even if Benedict Cumberbatch weren’t wearing it all on the skin of his terrific performance. I can understand his character, and the significance of the story being told, just fine without hand holding, thank you very much.
So it often goes with historical dramas like this, though. There are other problems here I find far weirder, including a rather baffling three-period structure that frequently kills the film’s sense of pace. While the central narrative spine follows Turing’s attempts to break Enigma, the film flashes back to his days at boarding school, and forward to the investigation into his homosexuality, and neither device broadens our understanding of the man very much at all. The flashbacks serve only to further underline points being made in the present – we could comprehend Alan’s social awkwardness and shielded nature just as well without these scenes – and the flash-forwards take an oddly circuitous route to actually exploring Turing’s terrible fate. The central action of the flash-forwards is an interrogation between Turing and a police officer, who suspects him of being a Soviet spy, and it is from these scenes that Turing’s narration over the Enigma plot is derived. Only, that narration begins at the start of the film, and the interrogation begins about halfway through – meaning both devices feel strange and out of place at all times. The transitions between periods are not smooth, but abrupt, interrupting the genuinely compelling drama of the Enigma plot to either tell us things we already know, or delay confronting the most important piece of Turing’s personal life.
It’s there that the film fails most obviously, for in continually pushing off discussion of Turing’s sexuality – it isn’t even mentioned until the halfway point, and doesn’t truly come to the forefront of the film until the very end – Tyldum and Moore neglect to fully honor or explore the pain this man went through. Turing did many amazing things, and while he should not be defined by his sexuality, it has to be acknowledged what a traumatic experience it must have been for him to live with this secret his entire life, and ultimately be destroyed for it by the country he played an enormous role in saving. The Imitation Game doesn’t gloss over Turing’s sexuality, but it pushes it into the background more frequently than need be, and the scene dealing with Turing’s horrific sentence – he was given a choice between prison and chemical castration, and chose the latter – feels oddly restrained. Cumberbatch illustrates Turing’s pain and confusion for a minute or two, and then the film tries to shift back into inspirational mode. It’s like Turing’s sexuality is something obligatory, a piece of his life that must be mentioned, rather than fully delved into or explored. I think the film would work much better if it ditched the flashbacks and replaced the flash-forwards with a more direct and powerful framing device, perhaps following Turing after his hormone therapy has started; that would give the film more time to explore his life’s tragedy, while creating a more direct, omnipresent contrast between his wartime heroism and postwar betrayal. For as much of Turing’s life as the film attempts to encompass, it feels like a fairly hollow, incomplete portrait in the end, and with this much talent on display, that should never have been the case.
Cumberbatch is, after all, perfect casting for Turing. The script has more or less given him a gentler version of Sherlock Holmes to play, but Cumberbatch pushes beyond his most famous character to deliver a wonderfully restrained, nuanced piece of work. One senses his Turing is a genuinely kind, goodhearted man, someone who wants to reach out and communicate with others but is constantly baffled by the basic processes of human interaction. There is an earnest, sympathetic core of confusion to Cumberbatch’s performance, a simple but powerful dichotomy between a brilliant mind and a bruised heart – an intellect that understands everything, and a soul too vulnerable to fully connect with others. I don’t know if any of that is really there in the script, but Cumberbatch nevertheless creates a full, three-dimensional character, and his performance is exhilarating to watch.
Keira Knightley is really just as good in the prime supporting role, as a talented puzzle-solver Turing hires and quickly befriends, and I’d argue she has an even harder part here. As written, Joan Clarke is barely a character; she seems defined early on by her intellect and problem-solving ability, but that never really enters the story again once she’s been introduced, and her ultimate role is as Turing’s emotional bedrock. That hardly gives Knightley much to build a performance around, yet she does terrific work anyway, further convincing me that few actors working today can convey so much with a simple smile or facial expression. She’s an enormously expressive actress, and conveys here the sense of Turing’s equal and opposite, a brilliant woman undervalued for her gender, who understands human emotion on levels Turing never can. She and Cumberbatch have absolutely stupendous chemistry together (though given Knightley’s excellent run of performances as of late, I think she may simply be the kind of actor who has great chemistry with everyone), and the film is at its best when the two share the screen.
There are some other nice performances here and there – Charles Dance is a delight, as always – and the film is a fairly impressive technical achievement all around, with beautiful, detailed, classically textured cinematography from Oscar Faura, and a lovely, lilting, hauntingly gorgeous score from the great Alexandre Desplat, who again displays an uncanny ability to find subtlety in material utterly lacking of nuance. The acting and technical merits are so good that the film is, generally, a pleasure to watch, and as obvious as the shortcomings are, I wouldn’t necessarily steer anyone away from the film because of them. The Imitation Game is a decent, enjoyable movie, and I am glad to have seen it for the impressive qualities it possesses, even as I don’t believe it works on the whole. Of course, the toxic nature of awards season is such that I may come to passionately resent the film, should it start winning Oscars it hardly deserves (otherwise known as The King’s Speech syndrome). Taken for what it is – a narratively unremarkable but technically proficient commercial biopic – The Imitation Game is fine, and one of many solid choices for holiday season viewing.
The Imitation Game is now playing in select cities, and will open everywhere December 25th.