December Issue 2014
Movie Review: The Imitation Game
There’s no stopping Benedict Cumberbatch. The British actor is everywhere — on stage, on television and in cinemas. And he’s terrific in all mediums. Cumberbatch is a phenomenally good actor, a truly chameleonic presence in each project of his. He is one of the few actors working today who can rise above a script. This is true of Star Trek Into Darkness, where Cumberbatch’s Khan has such a strong screen presence, that the rest of the characters pale in comparison. The same can be said of his Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. His portrayal is so good, that it’s perhaps one of the few things one takes away from an imperfect biopic. And now he’s made another, playing the English code breaker Alan Turing, whose invaluable contribution to the British war effort helped crack the German Enigma code and, in turn, saved countless lives, in The Imitation Game.
Cumberbatch is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. But enough about how good he is. Sadly, The Imitation Game is another such instance where all the pieces come together nicely (great director, great cast, great production) and yet something is missing. What could it be? Ah, a more exciting script perhaps.
Graham Moore has written a biopic based on Andrew Hodges’ book, but he omits a substantial part of Turing’s life: the latter half, where Turing was convicted for “gross indecency.” In other words, for being found guilty of homosexuality. This very important chapter from Turing’s life is almost ignored, present in the film but not present enough. It’s like the filmmaker adds just enough scenes to say, “There you go, this is what happened, now you know,” but doesn’t explore it at all. The focus is too much on Turing’s life as a code-breaker during the war, which begs the question: Is this supposed to be an action-packed war thriller or a biopic about a troubled genius?
During the Second World War, Britain enlists Alan Turing and an entire team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park, in order to break the German Enigma code, which, as Turing puts it, stems from the “greatest encryption device of the world.” Turing is witty and unafraid, quickly gaining the trust of Churchill himself. Even his team is at first reluctant to work with this self-absorbed person, but gradually warms up to him. And in Joan Clarke (played by the lovely Keira Knightley), an important crypt analyst in her own right, Turing finds his match and a true friend.
The film is divided into three timelines — one focuses on Turing as a teenager (an impressive Alex Lawther) at a boarding school, where Turing first developed feelings for another boy. The second focuses on Turing at Bletchley Park, where the bulk of the story takes place. Then, a tiny part is about Turing in postwar Britain, undergoing an abhorrent chemical treatment to ‘cure him of his homosexuality.’ Either that, or jail. It’s an appalling practice, and to think that this was as recent as the mid-20th century! But the film doesn’t focus on it too much, which is a weakness. Why is the film afraid to show, in more detail, what really happened to Turing after he saved so many lives? Why this nitpicking of scenes to make the narrative more smooth and ‘straight’ (pun unintended)?
This is, in fact, not a rounded portrait of Turing at all. The Imitation Game can be quite dull at times. But in the end, it’s a tolerable watch despite all the flaws. Cumberbatch has ample opportunity to be amazing and he is, no doubt, on his way to receive an Oscar nomination and perhaps even winning. It’s a shame that the film isn’t as good as its brilliant protagonist.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline, “Missing Something?”
Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany