Review: The Imitation Game (2014)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Graham Moore
Based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, a non-fiction book by Andrew Hodges
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear & Matthew Beard
Runtime: 114 min // Certificate: 12a
I must confess to being quite pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed The Imitation Game, not least because I am still of the opinion that Mr Benadryl Cummerbund is a one-trick pony, albeit one whose trick is quite impressive, and as such I went in feeling pretty wary about his ability to convince in the role of a man as complicated and misunderstood as Alan Turing. Well, despite my reservations about the film’s somewhat distasteful “straight-washing” (which I’ll explore in more detail in a moment), The Imitation Game is – on the whole – a respectful, challenging and engaging piece of cinema that does justice to the legacy of an until recently unsung hero, and boasts an admittedly spectacular performance from Beneficent Cumbywumby (I’ll stop now…) in the central role.
For those of you unaware of Turing’s astonishing contribution to life in the 20th Century, the film’s greatest strength will no doubt be the perfunctory but nonetheless interesting and well-written true story of a man who battled insurmountable odds to help defeat the Nazis by breaking their all-but-impenetrable secret code, Enigma. Focussing primarily on Turing’s life and work at Bletchley Park, where he and a small team of mathematicians worked day and night to break the secret Nazi code, The Imitation Game tells a heartfelt story of someone who one can only really describe as a national hero. In the background and bookending the bulk of the film, we also get an insight into the horrific injustice that ultimately resulted in Turing taking his own life when, having been discovered to be a homosexual (which was still a crime in Britain in 1952), Turing was forced to undergo chemical castration by a State that was wracked with “homosexual panic”.
Films that portend to tell the “true story” of figures about whom most people only know the scantest of details tend to follow a very similar pattern, and they never set out to rewrite the rulebook or explore the more controversial aspects of an individual’s history. The Imitation Game is no different, but it’s clear from the outset that this is a film that wants to celebrate Turing’s life, not commiserate his untimely death, and so while one feels a certain reluctance to praise the film for what it ignores, the areas that it does cover are explored in enough detail and with enough realism (certain lazy anachronisms aside) that one can’t help but appreciate the film for attempting to tell the story of Turing the man, rather than Turing the unsung hero. A concerted effort is made not to turn Turing into some sort of mythical genius but to treat him as a flawed but ultimately honest and devoted man, which is what he was at the end of the day.
Where the film flounders, however, is in its approach to the “controversial” subject of Turing’s sexuality. I put “controversial” in quotation marks for the simple fact that there’s nothing controversial about it, and nor should there ever have been, but his treatment at the hands of the country he worked so valiantly to protect and defend is a permanent stain on a nation that has never exactly covered itself in glory with regards to its treatment of people it deems “abnormal”. The Imitation Game, though never offensive, seems to be locked in a struggle with itself over how to broach this vital aspect of Turing’s story. On the one hand, it is Turing’s success as a code breaker, not his personal life, that makes up the bulk of the story, yet by sheer virtue of the fact that his life as a code breaker is examined through a very personal and intimate portrait of the man in question, it strikes me as odd that by far the most tragic part of the man’s life is treated so shoddily.
To give you an example of what I mean, let’s examine Turing’s relationship with Joan Clarke (Knightley; Begin Again) in the context of the film. Though it is true that Turing proposed to Clarke, primarily because he was good friends with her and wanted to conceal his homosexuality from an intolerant and unjust World, the film puts far too much emphasis on the notion that they might have been a romantic couple. Every time they’re on screen together, the film brims with an underlying tension that hints towards sexual affection, and though Turing’s sexuality is occasionally discussed, it’s always left in the background, as though it isn’t important. Now, it’s very easy for you or I to argue that yes, sexuality is unimportant in the 21st Century (though I personally would argue quite the opposite), but considering it was his sexuality that eventually saw Turing abused by the State he helped to save, the film should’ve done a much greater job of exploring that aspect of his character and of highlighting the gross injustices he faced in the final years of his life.
Nevertheless, despite this The Imitation Game remains a powerful and moving piece of cinema that does a very good job of telling Turing’s story in a manner that will appeal to a mainstream audience. It isn’t perfect, and I don’t think it focuses on the most salient aspects of Turing’s life in anywhere near as much detail as it ought to, but thanks to a phenomenal performance from Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), a decent screenplay and some careful and considered direction from Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), who just about manages to tread the fine line between wartime realism and costume drama fluff without falling too heavily into either, The Imitation Game is still a very fine film, and one that deserves a lot of credit for at least trying to celebrate Turing’s heroic efforts at Bletchley Park.