At the onset of The Imitation Game, Alan Turing asks if we’re paying attention, not dissimilar from Hugh Jackman in Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige.The Prestige played its B-movie twisty route with a kind of goofy, self-aware panache, knowingly stringing you along for a series of loony forks in the road. David Bowie played Nikola Tesla. We rightly paid attention. By point of comparison, The Imitation Game is dreadfully forthright. Almost unaware that the subtext that we’re supposed to be looking out for is already right there on the surface. There’s no code to track to understand the meaning of the film, it’s just all there. Plain and simple. And boring. That’s not to say the result isn’t an admittedly lovingly made historical piece destined for awards buzz. The thing has Oscar noms tramp stamped all over it. And yet with all its attention paid to the effect of the film, there’s no hiding the fact that it’s a contrived work of old-fashion non-fiction, one without much depth of intention. Believe me, there’s no need to pay close attention.
Benedict Cumberbatch again steps into the shoes of a man cripplingly bad at being normal (a la Sherlock and his turn as Julian Asange in The Fifth Estate.) He’s an unintentional misanthrope, a nerdy megalomaniac, a puzzle genius sans a lick of understanding for social graces. Back under the whip of imitating an existing figure, Cumberbatch offers his all but it’s a SSDD situation at best. We’ve seen the best of Cumbie struggling with crippling genius in the wingtip shoes of Sherlock. There’s simply no need to return to the well again, and again, and again. Seriously, this guy’s more typecast than Arnold.
Tasked with cracking the uncrackable German Enigma code, Turing must race against the clock (as American lives are lost by the second) all while withstanding political pressure from all sides. Add to that his secret homosexuality and you have a character who should be indefinitely rich in layers but winds up seemingly as complex as a Boston Creme Pie.
Morten Tyldum‘s old-fashion biopic finds an entry point into Turing by expounding upon three turning points in his life: his childhood, his secretive wartime activities and a post-war investigation into his private life. The three periods poke holes in a seemingly steely character but it’s most often only the meaty middle bits that are genuinely compelling. Young Al (Alex Lawther) develops a did-they-or-didn’t-they FWB situation with classmate Christopher and though the lil’ Lawther handles the material aptly, there’s nothing in those segments to propel the narrative forward without a dollop of clunky platitudes. The scenes exist to highlight the challenge of Turing’s latent gayness and suss out what makes him such an isolated being but it’s a hokey tactic that wrestles in even hokier speeches. “You know,” Christopher says to Alan, “it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do things that no one can imagine.” Thanks for the advice Lionel Logue.
Similar feel-good hokum can be found splattered throughout the bulk of Graham Moore’s tidy script, revealing The Imitation Game for the covetous awards hog it truly is. WWII? Check. Unsung but crucial historical figure? Check. Demons in closet? Check. “Wrap it up fellas, the Oscar’s in the bag.” Even the unwieldy CGI seems like an inside joke.
The idea of Keira Knightley as a era-smashing woman code-breaker threatens to upend the carefully formatted Oscar tedium but when she’s relegated to hiding her intelligence in the shadows, her character turns mostly moot. Knightley’s brainy Joan Clarke is certainly no Joan of Clarke, allowing the predominant belief that women can’t be nothing but seamstresses and baby-makers to shape her destiny. While Turing stuffs his unlawful preference in the closet (homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967) Clarke is his similarly secretive counterpart, solving puzzles by candlelight because the idea of a codebreaker with a vagina is just too much for those old snooty white guys to handle. Plus, cooties.
There’s an intriguing by-product to Clarke and Turing’s unorthodox union in which they both recognize and accept each other for who they are (Turing being gay and Clarke being…a smart woman?) but it’s mostly shadowed in an offscreen haze, only truly rearing its head for a late-stage Oscar moment scene. Clarke mostly becomes a fulcrum point around which Turing’s character evolves but is never substantial in herself, much like upper-decker officers Mark Strong and Charles Dance and inside team members Matthew Goode and Allen Leech. The pieces are all there but they’re as shaped and wooden as pawns, which Moore’s script plays them as.
In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency due to the investigation that bookends the film. In trying to prove that Turing was a spy, the local law reveled a romantic relationship with a 19-year-old boy. In a moment of Oscar glory, a discredited Turing admits he’s chosen to take “straight” pills rather than a prison sentence. Tears are had and I was reminded that this was the first time in the film that I actually felt much. For a film that tries to tackle so much within such a limited spectrum, The Imitation Game is as dated about its politics as it is about its filmmaking. Where it should have been brave, bold and pioneering, it’s clunky, squeamish and ultimately forgettable.