The Imitation Game
The cracking of the Enigma code has received a fair share of cinematic attention over the past fifteen years. The results, however, have been mixed at best. First came Jon Bon Jovi starrer U-571 (okay, McConaughey was the actual lead), which gained infamy for depicting the crucial, hitherto unknown role of the US Navy in retrieving a German cipher machine (rather than Tommy Atkins). Then came Enigma, more specifically focussed on the Bletchley Park code breakers, but heavily fictionalised (it was adapted liberally from Robert Harris’ already highly fictional account). The Imitation Game arrives with the promise of telling the real story right this time, and in so doing honouring Alan Turing’s genius and remembering his tragic demise. Unfortunately, it fails to hit a home run in any capacity. As an explanation of the code breaking process, and method involved, it is perfunctory at best. As a biopic it is crude and lacking in insight, running through the list of eccentric genius tropes as if the makers had never seen, and been warned off by, A Beautiful Mind while manufacturing makeshift dramatic moments in a glaring and contrived manner. The Imitation Game is a deeply average film artificially hoisted by the (understandable) respect reserved for its subject.
I mention A Beautiful Mind not because The Imitation Game ever plumbs the depths of little Ronny Howard’s Oscar winner but because both films engage in a calculated and borderline patronising treatment of their protagonists. They tread lightly on both the intellectual and theoretical accomplishments of these prodigies, and so end up borderline vapid when it comes to delivering snippets of their ideas and accomplishments. They also tip wholesale into the de rigueur arsenal of aspergic/autistic tics and quirks demanded of the Oscar-bait performance (there, I’ve brought up the statuette, but such talk is the inevitable facile consequence of Cumberbatch, a fine actor, playing a now universally acknowledged very wronged historical figure in a climate of too-late recompense and attempts to rebalance the scales). I found A Beautiful Mind’s obtuseness actually offensive in places, however, whereas The Imitation Game’s problem is simply that it is not very well crafted. It’s evident that the intentions are good, but the results are deeply pedestrian.
Another point of comparison with A Beautiful Mind (and there I will leave it) is the treatment, or lack thereof, of its lead characters’ sexuality. Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman brushed John Nash’s homo-(or bi-)sexuality under the carpet and had a huge hit on their hands. Alan Turing’s historical status is intrinsically tied to the event that befell him in the last two years of his life; his criminal conviction for gross indecency, during a period when homosexual acts were illegal, the punishment for which was imprisonment or chemical castration. Turing opted for the latter.
Indeed, while the royal pardon granted in the past year maybe symbolically significant, as has been pointed out by a number of observers the counterpoint is that all those who were similarly unjustly sentenced deserve exactly the same, rather than singling out Turing because of a sterling contribution to the war effort. The Imitation Game is resolutely coy about Turing’s sexuality, only mustering conviction in the depiction of his schoolboy crush (because it is young and innocent rather than adult and sordid?) We don’t see him in a relationship with a man (only the arrest and interrogation), yet an inordinate amount of time is spent on his platonic relationship with Knightley’s Joan Clarke. It’s easy to see where the criticisms are coming from in this regard.
That’s not the half of it, though. The manner in which we jump from Turing’s wartime efforts to his last days/years (through the most unwieldy and clumsy of framing devices) at least has more thematic consequence than the way Spielberg jumped to Lincoln’s assassination for no reason other than to provide an ending, but it does so in a manner that undermines everything else he did after the war. As it plays, you’d be forgiven for thinking Turing pitched straight into a steep post-war decline, isolated in his home building a mad machine, relieved only by bouts of cottaging. The scene in which Joan visits Alan, who is suffering the effects of the hormonal treatment, is affecting and disturbing, as it should be, but it smacks of cutting to the chase. And, while it may have been commendably restrained not to depict the (generally assumed, and the coroner’s verdict) suicide via cyanide-laced apple out of respect for alternate view (held by his mother and family, that it was an accidental overdose resulting from his electroplating process), this is not the sort of diligence that has been depicted elsewhere.
Graham Moore’s slipshod screenplay, based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, might suggest an air of rigour and complexity through a structure that finds the 1952 Turing interrogated, with the main thrust concerning his wartime efforts at Bletchley Park (which resulted in Churchill, among others, suggesting Turing was responsible for single biggest contribution to the Allied victory over Germany, one that shortened the war by an estimated two years) while further flashbacks depict his awakening feelings for (and loss of) fellow pupil Christopher. Sadly there is little that is rigorous or perceptive about the construction. Instead, one is compelled to cry fake in scene after scene irrespective of specific points of authenticity. Crucial moments are artlessly devised to depict conflict or emphasise high sprung genius, while the dialogue is at best on-the-nose (characters frequently speak in knowing sound bites)and at worst hopelessly rudimentary .
Cumberbatch’s Alan is abrupt/rude/ funny (although he doesn’t get a joke, except maybe about sandwiches) has Keira Knightley as a best friend/fiancé, clashes with his superiors and colleagues (most of whom invariably come to respect him) and generally runs the gamut of worn-out eccentric clichés. Turing’s absolutely not like Sherlock, because Cumberbatch makes him a touch more introverted and gives him trouble getting his words out. He’s still rude to people, though, so he’s enough like Sherlock that there are some crowd-pleasing moments involved. Cumberbatch performs with all the unbridled pleasure of a glutton tucking into a big juicy steak; Turing is a succession of ticks and vocal impediments; elongated “L”s, a subdued stammer and calculated cadences. The role is an thespian’s delight, but it’s so studied – and familiar form the sort of thing we’ve seen him do before – that Turing only rarely passes through the surface tapestry and becomes a fully formed character.
Moore definitely doesn’t support Cumberbatch, however. The actors are generally pretty good, certainly much better than the script deserves, but are stuck sparring with the lead through a succession of scenes where Turing’s wilful brilliance wins out; mostly he’s the tortured genius proven right in the end. Occasionally, to suggest he’s three-dimensional and not all greatness, he behaves insufferably. An additional problem is, while Turing is a passable caricature, those he interacts with barely even get to play cyphers (rather than cipher machines).
As soon as Turing arrives at Bletchley Park there is a sinking feeling, as he is subsumed by well-trodden ground. He’s eccentrically disposed, indifferent to the views of Charles Dance’s Commander Denniston and unabashed at announcing he is unmotivated by the war effort and that politics isn’t really his thing. The ghost of Sherlock seeps into the scene. And Denniston (Dance is solid, but he always is) is instantly cast as the malignant foe, because Turing in the film needs one; he suspects him of being a spy, threatens to turn off his machine and enacts various other unlikely and blunt inventions to create a tangible struggle. It isn’t that such devices shouldn’t be added in a dramatisation, simply that they require significantly more effort and care if they are going to pass without comment.
But this is the kind of biopic that commits such cardinal errors as having other characters announce to Turing what a legacy he will have. It makes dramatic sense to have Turing, who sees the world with a keener mind, voice the realisation that the knowledge of the broken code cannot get out (and thus alert the Germans). But then Moore has to overcook his turkey by having one of the fellow code breakers reveal his brother is in the convoy about to be bombed. Such sense of artifice is never far from any given scene.
Later, Turing’s fellows, whom he has treated so dismissively, get behind him one and all as Denniston announces he is fired (“I quit!” they proclaim in succession; while it’s self-evident by now that a high ranking on The Black List is no indication of quality, how anyone gave such toe-curling cheese a free pass is baffling). Sometimes this feels not so much like a major motion picture as a school play where the teenage author has called in favours to some well-known treaders of the boards in the extended family.
The spy fare too isn’t up to much either, a poor man-beggar man-thief’s version of Tinker Tailor trappings. Director Morton Tyldum scores by having Mark Strong as Major General Stewart Menzies, the face of MI6, but that’s about as far as it goes in favours. The framing device of the police investigation (with Rory Kinnear unable to save a thanklessly mechanical part) is a generally poor attempt to provide context to the conviction, the mood of the period and Turing’s own theories. Particularly awkward s is depositing the computer scientist’s explanation of the Turing Test amid the policy interrogation.
There are nice touches along the way. The moment of realisation of how to crack the code works well enough (although, one suspects it could have been handled even better). Then there’s Turing’s letter to Churchill, a witty punchline to the previous scene in which Denniston mockingly instructs him that the Prime Minister is the only figure who holds seniority over the Bletchley Commander. Then there’s Turing, now installed as head of team, immediately giving two of his colleagues their marching orders. The dealings with Soviet spy John Cairncross, here a fellow member of Turing’s group, creates an effective parallel with Turing; one keeps secrets professionally, the other personally (Moore extends this theme to the initial suspicions of the police investigation into Turing, while Cairncross’ non-judgemental stance also serves to pre-empt the political allegiances of Guy Burgess). There may be little finesse to any of these areas, but they work in and of themselves.
Most effective is Turing’s early life, with Alex Lawther providing a far more persuasive and affecting performance as young Turing than Cumberbatch’s mannered rendition. Jack Bannon is also very good as Christopher Morcom. Knowing that it was Morcom’s loss that instilled in Turing an ardent atheism (albeit with a belief in the endurance of the spirit) seems like too strong a piece of character information to pass up, yet it doesn’t get a mention. Moore’s screenplay is flavorlessly functional, and it’s left to the actors to fill in the gaps.
None of them are bad, but most can’t quite manage the task; Matthew Goode is merely okay as the suave ladies’ man who develops a grudging respect for his superior. Knightley is actually very good, a model of restraint opposite Cumberbatch’s whoops and hollers. This is the kind of part, playing to her natural poshness and chumminess that allows one to forget those unfortunate occasions when she looks as if she’s trying out for a Ronseal advert. It’s evident that the focus on Joan is as much evidence of faltering confidence in the tale of a gay mathematician who fell prey to the cruelty of the establishment as the heavy-handed injections of “excitement” into the plot, but that shouldn’t detract from the decent work she does.
This is Morten Tyldum’s English language debut, having turned heads with the effectively nasty (and funny) Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters. But there is little of that flair and energy here. Rather, he seems content to indulge every tin-eared cliché that Moore offers. Good God! Here’s a montage of Turing beavering away on the science intercut with him out running; that Turing tried out for the Olympic team does nothing to diminish the lack of imagination. Tyldum probably saw the kudos Tomas Alfredson received after seguing from Let the Right One In to his very good spy adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If so, he has been hoisted by his own petard, showing himself an inferior filmmaker in every respect.
The Imitation Game will very likely be showered with Oscar nominations, and Cumberbatch may very well walk away with a gong (he’s riding the quest of just such a wave). After all, Harvey Weinstein bought the picture for $7m in February, and he knows how to campaign the shit out of otherwise unlikely contenders. And then bring winners to the podium. But the truth is, the film just isn’t very good. It’s resolutely average. And biopics have a tendency to be very average. Turing’s tale is all the more so because the story has such potential, which is wasted. Instead we get another cartoon eccentric genius, complete with a dash of tragedy to provoke discussion about how important the film is. The Imitation Game is unworthy of the worthiness the subject matter bestows.