Movie Review: The Imitation Game
Director: Morten Tyldum
Reviewed: 31 January 2015
Benedict Cumberbatch's lead performance as famed mathematician Alan Turing carries the day in this period piece of life in the 1940's-1950's Great Britain that illuminates Turing and the people behind the enormity of code-breaking the Nazi war machine's Enigma device, the breakthrough that quietly led to the end of the war. Cumberbatch holds the screen as Turing, first embodying his fierce antisocial qualities and inability to work with others and later showing his tentative attempts to form bonds and trust others. It is a bravura performance, the best I've seen from the rising actor, and with it, The Imitation Game becomes grounded in one man's acute pain and a country's (and really a society's) prejudice against one part of what makes up a person. Even the most heroic person.
Set in the 1950's Manchester where Turing lives but also flashing back to the 1940's war-time group and the 1930's in boarding school, The Imitation Game concerns itself with MI-6 compiling the country's greatest code breakers to help figure out the German communiques that feed the submarines and bombers that strafe the country relentlessly. Turing has the notion of a digital brain, a primitive (by our standards) computer of sorts that can sort through the millions upon millions of code received daily and potentially translate it into actionable intelligence. However, Turing alone cannot build or run the machine, and the film chronicles his fledgling relationships with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) among others. The recruitment of Joan particularly is portrayed well (a crossword challenge in the newspaper, no less), and Turing's inability to lead a successful team could lead to his project's dismissal by the governmental higher-ups. When codes are received starting at 6 a.m., Turing's team has eighteen hours to break Enigma's elaborate system of ciphers before the machine resets itself. Success has enormous ramifications: they could know where all German subs and bombers are hiding as well as imminent attacks before they happen.
The film's elaborate construction takes us backwards and forwards with a break-in at Turing's apartment being the catalyst for the story and his clumsy explanation of his past to a local detective (Rory Kinnear). I wonder what was lost in the triptych structure. Would Turing's war experiences have made an altogether different film, perhaps an even better one? Yet, in that three-part structure, the film offers a distinct before and after examination at a genius, offering some ideas about what created his emotional dislocation from others as well as what the service to country took from him. I left the film exhilarated and wanting to know more, always a good thing. It stumbles a bit at the end, especially with some title cards that deliver the obvious. I wonder if that was a studio note, and if so, it was not a wise one. The score by Alexander Desplat is wonderful, and the integration of the war footage and blitzkrieg bombing of London is fine, if a little jarring tonally and texturally with the rest of the very real, tactile, rooms of smart people and machines. Keira Knightley is good here, though her character has far too little screen time and needs even more to do. And, the film telegraphs itself a bit (as soon as one character says that his brother is fighting in the war, the eventual conflict of conscience reveals itself).
I found myself wondering what Alan Turing's life was like after the war as well as his interiority about being the tool of his government. The idea of his success being classified and hidden from the public for over fifty years is a staggering one. And the savage, almost throwaway brutality of 1950's codified by law homophobia offers a distinct look at our culture's near history, a companion piece to DuVernay's Selma in its depiction of institutionalized prejudice. The flashbacks to boarding school offer clues into Turing's emotional walls, but overall, the tone is one of sadness.
But it is Cumberbatch's performance and Tyldum's skill in compiling this story that combine to make a very competently told film. It has the elements working in harmony with each other, and I highly recommend it.