Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)- A Standard British Drama That Finds Modern Significance in its Occasionally Simplistic Character Study

_TFJ0226.NEFNothing is more tragic than witnessing the bright light of a promising mind—creative, intellectual, or otherwise—being snuffed out far before their time and even more tragic when the reasons behind their end are a result of thoroughly antiquated, discriminatory, and unjust notions that have, for the most part, evolved over time. One of these elusive minds was that of Alan Turing, a cryptanalyst widely considered the father of artificial intelligence, who decoded the German Enigma machine during World War II that inevitably led to a shift in tides toward the wars victorious end. Nearly sixty years after his tragic suicide Turing received a posthumous royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II for the crime of homosexuality, the focal point aspect of his life that has been the inspiration of books, plays, and now in the form of film with Morten Tyldum’s English speaking debut The Imitation Game. As it is with most biopics, character surveys, and real events inspired stories The Imitation Game has, at its foundational roots, some conventionalist flaws where the subject of Turing as either misunderstood genius, antisocial provocateur, or homosexual victim are all handled with shallow depth leaving behind an enigma of a man who was far more complex than the film allows itself to explore. However, young screenwriter Graham Moore’s condensed yet engrossing script, Morten Tyldum’s refined direction, and a captivating central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch heighten the double meanings, pronounced messages, and modern significance of this deeply formulaic yet dramatically reliable British drama. Though it might be a disservice to present a man who explored the edge of society’s established norms in such a conventional cinematic fashion it seems Tyldum’s film wants to focus on how the subject of Turing imitated the social codes of life around him as much as his machine imitated the algorithm codes it sought to break. The Imitation Game is standard in its old-fashioned look, predictable structure, and reliable sense of dramatics, but there’s much to be discovered under the fashionable shell of this seemingly typical Oscar bait constructed film where a modern relevance towards justice and acceptance is sharply highlighted by the film’s sorrowful, reflective end note.

There’s certainly a well-known algorithm for constructing Oscar contending films, usually involving a blend of underdog sentiment, lighthearted collaboration, dramatic outbreaks, and, of course, a rousing victorious end that sees the struggle come together with purpose. Graham Moore understands this formula but adds into it a mixture of twists that make the experience far more thought-provoking where the usual underdog victory is dramatically altered by a battle between altruistic morality and callous war statistics and the structure of the film is broken apart like pieces of a puzzle in an attempt to bring a full light on the character it’s studying. Loosely based on Andrew Hodges’ non-fiction book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” and borrowing some unreferenced thematic elements from Hugh Whitemore’s play “Breaking the Code,” The Imitation Game brings center focus on the enigma that is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) during his Bletchley years where his socially inept, insultingly rude, and faintly humble personality clashed with his team, superior officers, and off shoot loves to decipher the German code machine Enigma during World War II. Moving forward and back in time from Turing’s arrest confession to a suspicious police officer and his youthfully awkward yet thoroughly enlightening schooldays is what begins to give us some insight on the fragile, secretive, and delicate man Turing was. However, the film is rather coy in most of the foundational pillars of Turing’s life—sex, science, and suicide—where his sexual identity is treated as a matter of fact concept, the scientific progress he and his team make is presented in montage without insight or detail, and his suicide is a sorrowful mention that is alluded to partially throughout the film. And just as it is with most Oscar contenders the message at the heart of the film becomes annoyingly transparent as the line “sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” becomes a chorus of sorts to its typical melodramatic moments. Of course any story told of Turing, even one that seemingly fails to unravel the enigma of who he was, is a welcomed one because his achievements, his suffering, and his place in history should be known by more people and thanks to the fine direction of Morten Tyldum audiences now will know of him.

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“Am I a man, a machine, a war hero, or a criminal,” asks Turing near the end of his confession and truth be told he is partly all three; a fragile man with the logistic mindset of a robot that is a war hero in secret and a criminal in public. The Imitation Game itself is as equally varied in its embodiment of genres as it possesses the undercurrent of a thriller, the elements of a character study, the setting of a period drama, and also the ensemble of a team building inspirational film. Having such a broad cinematic focus of course dilutes the impact of most of these intended genre influences, but luckily Norwegian director Morten Tyldum has the refined sensibilities behind the camera to avoid delving into overly cliché sentiments and keeps his potentially complex story from veering off its directional route. It seems surprising that a filmmaker from Norway would be tackling an almost specifically English film, one that showcases the British suffering of war, the British culture during the war and post-war years, and a subject that happened to be British. But Alan Turing in his unconventional way of life and moving against the norms of British society is a more modern day character and Tyldum’s career has always been about focusing on the problems of modernity, whether it’s a scathing twist on male egoism and insecurity in his previous film Headhunters or the frenzy of the personal as entertainment in his film Buddy. And because of this modernized sense of the character and bypassing the rigid reserved demeanor of his British subjects the film ignites with dramatic force as it builds up nicely in both its thriller elements and character reveals. Much like the script in its formulaic adoption of standard Oscar aimed films Tyldum adopts a pedestrian filmic style to create a conventional film that allows its conventions to be refined, perfected, and delivered in the most handsome way possible. Cleanliness is next to godliness for Oscar bait films and The Imitation Game has it in spades where Alexandre Desplat’s classic themed score blends with emotional clarity alongside Oscar Faura’s pristine cinematography which is all seamlessly edited by William Goldenberg. But if there’s one thing that transcends its undoubtedly elegant yet conventional presentation it’s the central performance of Benedict Cumberbatch who brings the entire film’s poignant and resonant warning to a powerful conclusion.

If you heard the description of Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Alan Turing with the use of adjectives such as awkward, determined, stand-offish, arrogant, or fragile you might think that would be describing his previous roles as Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Hawking, or even his Julian Assange. However, where there might be similarities in the aspects of the characters he plays Cumberbatch undoubtedly finds different layers within himself and different characteristics within his portrayals to make every performance his gives a remarkable one. He defies the film’s simplistic conventions and overt messaging by immersing himself in the complicated aspects of Turing’s life, whether it’s his literal-minded sociability, his reserved secrecy towards his sexual affairs, and his deeply rational way of thinking that often times trumps morality. Through this performance we clearly see the film’s intention at displaying a duel game of imitation as he Turing struggles to adapt to his environment and connect with his team while at the same time his machine is struggling to adapt to the German Enigma code. All around him is an ensemble of brilliant and refined British actors who bring classiness to the entire Turing affair, including the Bletchley teammates—two time chess winner Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), covert Soviet Union spy John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and moralist Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard)—and his superior officers, the irascible and demeaning Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and the understated and reserved MI6 agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) . Of course the equally on par chemistry performance comes from Turing’s unconventional love interest in Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke who was an incredibly brilliant mathematician who rivaled Turing on every intellectual cylinder and yet was denied fellowship, job ventures, and other connections because she was a woman. They develop a bond of mind, struggle, and understanding that as Joan claims is “better than most marriages” with Knightley delving into her delicate vulnerability mixed with intense strength under the surface. These actors, especially Cumberbatch, become the glue that brings all of the film’s varying elements together to make a seamless if occasionally simplistic experience that has clear emotional impact.

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The Imitation Game at its heart is an audience pleaser; a film that brings together a lost tragedy into the modern limelight heightened in poignancy, significance, and impact due to a familiar in convention yet twisted in delivery script, distinguished directing that knows its expressive limits, and of course brilliant acting that transcends the material in every way. If only the script wasn’t so scattered in genre and transparent in its end credit shaming of common laws of the past so that we could truly receive the insight we deserve on a man who was far more complex to be defined by his sexuality, his war achievements, or his unfortunate suicide. But in the film’s ability to blend these aspects of his life into simplistic puzzle pieces towards a larger picture of the man is enough to make a captivating drama filled with reflective purposes on how ostracizing people with differences can have tragic and often times societal consequences. In condensing the man Alan Turing into a two-hour drama that flippantly avoids the messy details of his actual life it leaves the enigma of the man still intact, but while leaving the theater we are given the essence of a message that is important and should be contemplated by more than the people who will actually be able to see this film. The story of Alan Turing and Tyldum’s film The Imitation Game are both tragic yet celebratory tales relating to how differences are something to be cherished even if they lead those who bear its sufferable weight towards a sorrowful end.

Grade: B+

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