Film review by Jason Day of The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley about the code-breaking work of Alan Turing.
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During WWII, Professor of Mathematics Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is appointed to lead the British government’s top secret code breaking operation at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. Despite objections from his colleagues, he ignores the daily grind trying to manually decipher Nazi Enigma codes and chooses instead to inventing and build a machine that will do this. Essentially the world’s first computer, it will analyse multiple lines of code at any one time.
His actions help to win Britain the war but he is later arrested when his homosexuality, illegal at the time, is uncovered.
Review, by Jason Day (@Reelreviewer)
A propitious time to adapt Andrew Hodges 1983 book (later adapted into a play and a 1996 TV movie with Derek Jacobi), given that Turing was pardoned only recently (December 2013) for his arrest for gross indecency in 1952 and his subsequent chemical castration (the ‘other option’ for gay men who preferred to avoid prison).
Turing was a complex man and it would have taken oodles of screen time to crack his own personal code, so it is much to writer Moore’s credit that he has created a believable distillation of the man, his passions (mostly his work) and his socially backward, distancing personality in just under two hours, time that seems to fly by.
The dialogue is one of the most impressive aspects of the film. Moore teases us playfully with verbal fencing between the arrogant Turing and his aloof, protocol obsessed colleagues and superiors. His bracing, caustic interview with Charles Dance sees words bouncing around the set delightfully. Although numbers are what interested and defined Turing in life, it is ironically words that help construct him and our sense of who he was.
Unfortunately it is the film-makers’ desire to concentrate on a hetero-positive view of the great man that, for me at least, blinkers the film.
Let me put this into context: the story is immediately framed around Turing’s arrest for gross indecency, although perceptive policeman Kinnear is unaware of this at first and thinks he is a spy. Turing’s opening narration implores the viewer to not judge him until his full story is known.
All clear then and the film does not ignore his attraction to other men. Turing mentions it himself as do his colleagues, Knightley herself is untroubled by him admitting this. The code breakers seem a remarkably modern and liberated gang.
But the film then veers off course somewhat, concentrating on an otherwise minor aspect of his personal life, that of his platonic engagement to Knightley’s character, beefing up this putative, lavender romance and paying only lip service to his actual sexuality.
This approach might be because the film-makers wanted to seriously examine Turing’s work and his extraordinary contribution to the war effort and not make this an exclusively ‘gay interest’ film, which would have led to an equally skewed picture of him. (In interviews, Cumberbatch states the film is not a firm and fast biopic, thus smartly masking a multitude of cinematic sins).
I’m not for one minute suggesting the film should have been awash with male nudity and gay sex scenes, but to wilfully sweep his personal life into the closet seems callow and misrepresentative.
This approach lends added meaning to the duality of the film’s title. The Imitation Game is the name of Turing’s academic paper into the relationship between humans and computers and his computer imitates the Nazi enigma machines it seeks to translate (he also names it Christopher after his first love as a schoolboy, thus ascribing to it an actual human label).
The title also refers to the sexuality Turing has to hide as he himself imitates being a heterosexual. The film itself also masquerades with truth-telling, coyly mentioning but not exploring its subjects personal life.
I may be getting hung up on this point but that’s the bad stuff out of the way entirely, as the performances are mightily impressive across the board.
Turing may have been on the autistic spectrum (the ‘gay Rain Man’ if you will) and Cumberbatch’s impressive attention to detail brings out the twitchy, nervous, self-conscious arrogance. This is a witty, rich and layered performance, thoroughly engrossing. I’ve never been a fan of the unfathomable star wattage around him but seeing him play Turing is making me question whether I should binge all of Cumberbatch’s other film and TV work.
Knightley she shows how mature an actress she has become and how she may well become one of the pre-eminent film actress ten years from now. This is a very perceptive turn, her character growing from perky, excitable youth to a grown-up, professionally disappointed woman.
More quietly impressive are Kinnear as the curious policeman and especially Lawther as the young and odd teenage Turing mercilessly bullied at private school.
Full kudos too to the production team who make the piece look plusher than its £15 million budget.
Cast & credits
Director: Morten Tyldum. Black Bear Pictures/Bristol Automotive et al.
Producers: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman.
Writer: Graham Moore.
Camera: Oscar Faura.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Sets: Maria Djurkovic.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Tuppence Middleton, Rory Kinnear, Steven Waddington, Alex Lawther.