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Handsome Imitation Game Puts Agenda above Intrigue

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2014 11 Dec
Handsome <i>Imitation Game</i> Puts Agenda above Intrigue

DVD Release Date: March 31, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: November 28, 2014 (limited); December 12, 2014 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 114 min.
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, Charles Dance

Woe to the movie that isn't sure what it wants to say.

The Imitation Game, an Oscar hopeful about World War II British code-breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, 12 Years a Slave), is a handsomely mounted, sometimes engaging but ultimately frustrating production. It takes what’s most interesting about Turing—his work to develop a machine that can crack Germany's Enigma cipher machine—and somehow manages to make it secondary to Turing’s struggles as a homosexual in mid-20th century Great Britain. It's not that the film can't be about both things, but the thrilling wartime code-breaking segues into a sorrowful story about 1950s social norms designed to evoke pity and, possibly, rage.

The film's structure wraps the secondary story around the primary. Starting in 1951 with a reported burglary at Turing's home that leads to his arrest and indecency conviction, The Imitation Game soon flashes back to 1939, when Turing's fascination with mathematics earns him a place among a secret unit of puzzle solvers tapped to crack Germany's Enigma machine. But no sooner have we settled into that time frame than the film flashes further back to 1928 to witness Turing's budding childhood friendship with a classmate, Christopher, before jumping back to 1940 and… well, when the film finally returns to the 50s, you shouldn't be faulted if you're a little confused by the time hops (especially because the 1950s version of Turing doesn't look all that different from the 1940 man.

It's the youngest version of Turing that's key to what the filmmakers want us to take away in terms of understanding the grown Turing's passions. For it's there, in his childhood friendship with Christopher, that we see Turing's joy in developing coded messages. That's a talent that will help Turing in his efforts with the Enigma-fighting team that includes Joan (Keira Knightley, Begin Again)—in many ways Turing's equal—and ladies' man, Hugh (Matthew Goode, Watchmen), all working under the leadership of Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, Green Lantern) at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park.

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There's suspense, plenty of drama and even a touch of romance in The Imitation Game, but the film is notably lacking in one area: laughs. That's too bad, because the film's few attempts at humor work well. One amusing scene depicts Turing’s interview for the code-breaking job with a no-nonsense commander (Charles Dance). It goes poorly, and Turing's outspokenness drives the gruff official to the point of dismissing Turing from the interview prematurely before Turing, showing that he knows just how far to push things, reels the commander back in and wins the job. The commander’s treatment of his prospective employee is a witty, well-timed dance between two worthy fighters who don’t suffer fools gladly.

No one believes in Turing’s talents more than Turing himself, so when he encounters early resistance among the team to his plans, Turing appeals directly to Winston Churchill, who puts him in charge of the group—another moment played, effectively, for a laugh. Turing proceeds to build a code-breaking machine that he names Christopher in memory of the friend with whom he once shared ciphered notes.

This portion of The Imitation Game isn't anything we haven't seen done before, but there's a pleasure in seeing Turing's standoffish arrogance alienate his fellow team members, even as they come to admire Turing’s dedication and precision in pursuing the team’s mission. Before it becomes pitying of its protagonist, The Imitation Game is a well-paced if rarely unpredictable telling of a fascinating piece of history, with Cumberbatch's dominant central performance threatening to overwhelm nice turns from Knightley, Goode and others in supporting roles. However, the film begins to falter when Turing’s work doesn’t produce quick results, and Turing starts offering up the hoariest of clichés. Among the lines we’ve heard a hundred times in other stories, Turing shouts, "You'll never understand the importance of what I'm creating here!" at skeptics of his work. Later, a team member shows his allegiance to Turning by telling an official, "If you fire him, you'll have to fire me, too."

More dispiriting is the film's final stretch, when Turing, convicted for "indecency" in the 1950s, is visited by the now married Joan, who discovers that Turing has become a shell of his former self. The reason? Faced with a choice of punishment—imprisonment or a form of chemical castration, as Turing refers to it—he chooses to take the pills, which lead to obvious frailties and the dulling of his once-sharp mind (indeed, the film implies that Turing chose suicide rather than continue on as he was).

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Closing title cards tie Alan's early death to Britain's policy toward homosexuals in the mid-20th century. They also mention that Alan's pioneering work led to the development of today's computers, and that his work to break the Enigma code shortened the war and saved millions of lives. But it's the tragedy, not the triumph, that's the overriding emotion of the film's conclusion, which comes across much more like a somber sermon than a celebration.

There's a place for both types of movies, of course, but trying to make one story into both things is hard to pull off, as The Imitation Game demonstrates. The film is never hard to watch—it’s nicely shot by Oscar Faura, who did outstanding work in 2012's The Impossible, and is directed by Morten Tyldum (Headhunters)—but the shifting thematic emphases and time frames trip up the telling of a fascinating historical story. That doesn't make The Imitation Game a bad movie. It just keeps it from being the great film it might have been.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “how the hell”; “go to hell”; ethnic slur; “kick his a-s”; “dam-it”
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Smoking; drinking at dinner; chemical treatment for homosexuality is shown to have debilitating effects
  • Sex/Nudity: Discussion of homosexual acts, but nothing shown
  • Violence/Crime: Alan believes violence is committed because it feels good; Alan is bullied as a young boy; the team allows a German attack to be carried out even though they have the power to stop it—but at the risk of exposing their work; a woman slaps a man; mention of suicide
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageAlan gets engaged to Joan but breaks it off after confessing his homosexuality to her; Joan insists they can still get married and have a better marriage than many others; Alan is accused of “playing God”

Publication date: December 11, 2014

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