Published on December 22nd, 2014 | by Damien Straker
The Imitation Game – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on December 21st, 2014
Roadshow presents a film by Morten Tyldum
Produced by Nora Grossman, Peter Heslop, Graham Moore, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman
Written by Graham Moore, from Andrew Hodges’ book ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Charles Dance
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Oscar Faura
Edited by William Goldenberg
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Date: January 1st, 2015
British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was highly influential in the Second World War, arguably shortening the conflict by as much as two years and consequently saving millions of lives. He also pioneered modern computer technology by designing two pivotal machines. The Turing machine was developed in 1936 and described by the Stanford Encyclopedia as “devices intended to investigate the extent and limitations of what can be computed”. The second major invention was called the Bombe which Turing invented in 1939. The Bombe was a larger device which reversed the encryption of the German’s Enigma machine, allowing messages to be intercepted and attacks against the Allies to be prevented, consequently helping end the war.
As the gears and cranks of the machinery would churn, so do parts of The Imitation Game, a fictional account of Turing’s efforts to utilise the Bombe, along with his relationships to his peers like Joan Clarke and his isolation in Britain during the 1950s for being ostracised as a homosexual. Marking the English language feature debut of Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, the film’s central idea is whether a machine can think for itself, a deliberately self-reflective question. While The Imitation Game is a slick piece of engineering, designed to extract such impulses as “laughs” and “pain” from its audience, it does not escape the imprint of previous models of this story. Nor should its components be considered original but refined parts welded together to form a reliable filmic mould. While I enjoyed much of the film, from its central performance to its dry wit, the concessions made sometimes feel overly calculated with the film’s phases set towards the box-office.
Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Turing and successfully projects a showcase of violent shakes, downward stares and internalised thoughts as his mind spins like the cogs of the Bombe. His version of Turing engages but it’s strictly an interpretation of the man, comparable to how he plays the World’s Greatest Detective or The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper. In the first feature script by Graham Moore, writer of the novel ‘The Sherlockian’, the characterisation of Turing represents him as a brilliant mechanical and scientific mind but also socially daft and borderline Asperger’s. The deadpan humour is especially funny when Turing takes everything literally like when he is invited by his frustrated colleagues including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) for lunch. But the robotic impression is at odds with novelist Alan Garner’s recollections, who met Turing while jogging in the 1950s. He described him as having a great sense of humour and being stocky with a barrel chest, a stark contrast to Cumberbatch who is lean and tall.
Adding character traits evokes strong comedy but steers the story towards a predictable end goal for the character arc. It is inevitable this robotic man will connect emotionally with others. The “other” is primarily Christopher, Turing’s real life crush. The character is present in flashbacks where we see his companionship to Turing, who was indefensible to the torments of the other school children. Though commendable for not forgoing from the story, a step-up from the John Nash biopic A Beautiful Mind which this film resembles in content and structure, Turing’s sexuality is still kept at arm’s length. It is addressed verbally and treated as a plot twist in the present day scenes where a policeman investigates a break-in into Turing’s home. The relationship is also expressed through a pivotal visual motif of the Bombe, which Turing calls Christopher, making the machine an early prototype of Spike Jonze’s “Samantha”. The film’s second non-romance features Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, whom Turing proposed to, but the part is underwritten, with the only details of the character being her intelligence and still living with her parents.
Moore’s script, summarised as a broad period comedy, relies on old formulaic structures to house potentially richer and substantial ideas. The conflict of utilising the Bombe at Bletchley Park mirrors a college movie and underdog story, with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) acting as a cantankerous dean figure, believing Turing is wasting time and money with the machine. He outlines a standard movie protocol where the group have a month to show results or they’ll be removed. The underdog premise is also underscored by dialogue written like a cheesy political bumper sticker. “It’s the people no one thinks anything of that do things people can only imagine” is one repeated line instilling creaking themes about the willpower of individuals and outcasts. The script’s best idea is the contradictions between Turing inner and outer life. While unlocking the secrets of the Enigma he withholds information about himself, most proficiently dramatised when the subplots filter into each other from different time periods, changing the meaning of scenes. Further, a powerful choice briefly enriches the plot’s complexity when Turing strategically conceals information regarding the attacks, a dilemma which alone could have sustained an uncharacteristically plodding final quarter.
The Imitation Game is an American-British coproduction, financed partly by Black Bear Pictures, a New York-based film company, accounting for the compromises with the stylisation. Morten Tyldum settles for a breezy, comedic tone, without reaching the emotional heights of The King’s Speech, despite sharing its penchant for juxtaposing comedy with the formal historical backdrop. There are no war casualties shown in the film and the only signs of physical conflict are intercuts to brief scenes of fighter bombers, stock footage and the occasional ruined building in Britain. Further illustrating the lack of grit is the glossy look the film possesses and Alexandre Desplat’s overly chipper score. More danger could have enhanced the film’s tension levels. But Tyldum’s strengths are in the deadpan comedic tone, supplied by a solid lead performance, and keeping the pace brisk until a late drop in energy. The film is rarely anything but entertaining and humorous but its approaches are visibly commercial, meaning some of the authenticity and seriousness of an incredible story has been lowered.
Summary: The film is rarely anything but entertaining and humorous but its approaches are visibly commercial.