The Imitation Game – A Review

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Much like the German code that he sought to break, Alan Turing is something of an enigma. Most of Turing’s life was shrouded in secrecy – both professionally and personally. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about the British mathematician before I saw The Imitation Game; I’d heard the name Turing, but wasn’t really aware of his significance or his role in World War II. I think that ultimately played in my favor, as I found the story of him and his fellow code breakers an absolutely fascinating tale. Anchored by a fantastic performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a glimpse at an important moment in history, as well as a reminder of the prejudice and persecution that many had to (and continue to) endure.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who is part of a team (including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Allen Leech) that is enlisted for a top secret mission: to break the Nazi Enigma code to be able to intercept and understand what the Germans are planning to do next. The code is reset every 24 hours, which means that cracking the code is also a race against time; all the work done the previous day is worthless. Turing’s personality and methods inititally clash with not only the other code breakers, but his supervisors as well; rather than trying to decipher the code in a traditional way, Turing wants to design a machine that will break the code for them. A special relationship develops between Turing and Joan Clarke (Knightley) – she humanizes him a bit and he is willing to give her opportunities that she normally wouldn’t be granted as a woman during this time. Turing may be somewhat eccentric and removed, but he has reason for that – he’s concealing part of who he really is. That secret will eventually cost him almost everything that he’s worked for.

What makes The Imitation Game a special movie is that it’s a film that has both an interesting story and that is well acted. You’d think that was to be expected, but lately I seem to see films that are one or the other, but not both. Cumberbatch is unsurprisingly great in this film; he manages to play Turing and his eccentricities with balance. There is more to this man than just a series of quirks and Cumberbatch takes pains to make sure that this is a grounded performance. There is an inherent restraint to Turing, given that he is concealing a lot, and Cumberbatch is perfectly contained in bringing Turing to life. It’ a role that could have been done in a manner so that it was very similar to Cumberbatch’s famous turn as Sherlock Holmes, but by making the necessary adjustments it is a performance that feels new and true to the man it was depicting, rather than a rehash of what we already know Cumberbatch can do well. Cumberbatch is surrounded by other solid performances as well; I’ve always been a little ambiguous about how I feel about Keira Knightly, but this latest performance is the culmination of a string of roles that have really impressed me recently. She’s very good as Joan and she and Cumberbatch work extremely well together. There really isn’t a poor performance in this movie; no matter how big a role the actors have, everyone does a nice job with what they are given.

Though the backdrop of the film is WWII, this isn’t a traditional war movie; the weakest part of the film is probably the stock footage that they use for any of the depictions of the actual fighting. That wasn’t a problem for me, since I typically find war-centric movies to be tedious, but if someone is expecting a lot of the traditional wartime action from The Imitation Game they will be disappointed. But what I think makes this movie exceptional is that it is able to create just as much tension from the story that it is trying to tell; even if you don’t know the specifics of Turing’s story, you know the ultimate outcome of WWII so there isn’t necessarily a lot of obvious suspense. Despite that, the film is able to create a story that you are invested in, regardless of how much you know about the actual historical events. There are clear stakes to what these characters are doing, even if much of it happens off screen. I’ve suffered some WWII fatigue in movies, as many of them cover the same general terrain; while the Holocaust is obviously a critical event in our recent history, it was kind of refreshing to see a WWII film that didn’t have anything to do with that particular part of the War.

My only gripe about The Imitation Game is that while I was very interested in the story that it was telling and quite liked the performances, something about the film made it feel a little too predictable and contrived. I have this problem with many biopics, which is essentially what this film is; as loyal readers know, I tend to like my films a little messier and there isn’t much mess to The Imitation Game. It’s an important story to be told, but it is told in the simplest manner. There aren’t any shades of grey in the film. That their stylist choice and they have the right to make it, but that doesn’t resonate as strongly with me. Turing was a great man who made great accomplishments, but by choosing to primarily focus on him (and to a lesser degree his relationship with Joan) the film minimizes the importance of some of the other characters. This focus of the film is also a little blurry – is this film the story of breaking the Enigma code or the personal story of Alan Turing? I think it’s setting out to do the latter, but the attention to the former means that neither component is told in a very in-depth manner.

Some other thoughts:

  • Charles Dance also appears in this film and I don’t think I’ll ever not be able to think of him as Tywin Lannister (Game of Thrones). I kept waiting for him to do something awful to Benedict Cumberbatch.
  • I saw this film at the Film Columbia festival and the organizer of the festival introduces the films to the audience prior to each screening. He wound up telling the audience the ending of the film, which caused a big ballyhoo; though what happened to Turing is part of historical record and was apparently mentioned in the blurb for the film, a lot of people in the audience were very angry when this happened. I had avoided reading too much about any of the films on purpose so that I could be surprised, but even knowing how things worked out didn’t really damper my enthusiasm for the film. But it wasn’t a great way to kick off the festival.
  • A crossword puzzle plays an important part in the recruitment of code breakers; see how you do on it:

 

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All in all, I was fairly impressed with The Imitation Game; it may have been a little too simplified for my liking, but it was an interesting story with some interesting performances. I’m sure that we’ll hear more about this film come award season; it has already done quite well on the festival circuit. The contrast of Turing’s secret heroics to his public persecution is staggering and helps elevate the narrative of the film. This film chronicles a pivotal, but mostly unknown, chapter of WWII and lead by a perfectly nuanced performance by Cumberbatch it is an important and entertaining movie.

The Imitation Game opened on Friday.

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