Saturday, December 6, 2014
The Imitation Game (**)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Alan Turing is a fascinating man whose life was ended tragically early by a society that was so intolerant of homosexuality that it couldn't even tolerate one that helped keep it from being destroyed. He was a complex, contradictory man who faced perilous odds and went on to create the foundations of the Information Age, the internet and the computer. That his repressed homosexuality led to him never being properly appreciated for this during his lifetime is very sad indeed. The Imitation Game's greatest flaw is that it thinks that Turing's story is also a World War II story. The movies have been obsessed with World War II since before it even ended. It's dividing lines between the good guys and bad guys are so thick and impossible to look past, it makes it perfect for films with heavy-handed morality to draw a portrait of valiance and violence. Only a glance at a Wikipedia page can show you that the war was only a partial player in Turing's resume of brilliance, it gave him a substantial opportunity to exploit his fascination with creating a machine that can think like a human. The Imitation Game cares too much about global dispute and not enough about the wonderfully idiosyncratic protagonist that history has provided for them. What we end up getting is a film that telegraphs its narrative arc so obviously that it's a miracle that the characters don't see the end coming.
For Turing, the film casted Benedict Cumberbatch, a uniquely talented actor with a strongly devoted cult following that is quickly growing into a mainstream following. I'd never seen him in anything until 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where he also played a repressed homosexual, and I've been a fan ever since. His take on Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock does the best job of showing just how vast Cumberbatch's talent can be; he both embodies everything we know and love about the literary world's most recognizable detective all while making the character his own. It's a true performance that doesn't rely at all on past iterations, even while acknowledging the character's rich history. In Imitation Game, Cumberbatch is quite good as well, even if it doesn't quite reach the level of his work in Tinker Tailor or Sherlock. His portrayal of Turing - arrogant and anti-social, unable to play well with those around him - feels at times like a different version of things we've seen him do before. He's shown quite often that he can make a prickly character entirely watchable, and he's very gifted at spinning wit from characters who never seem to have a sense of humor. The role plays to all of Cumberbatch's strengths and its placed gently into a film that will allow the mainstream to finally rubber stamp his official movie stardom. I personally don't think Cumberbatch is a movie star, his style is too eccentric. But The Imitation Game is his best attempt at that kind of position.
Turing's involvement in World War II was kept top secret for half a century before his contribution to the Allied victory was revealed. Early in the film he's hired by British Army Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, in full Tywin Lannister mode) to be part of a top secret mission to help crack the Germans' impossibly complex Enigma code. The code has allowed the Nazis to run roughshod over Europe and keep all their plans a total secret. The Enigma runs on a code with trillions of possibilities, but what makes it so difficult is that every night at midnight, the settings reset, creating a whole new code with a whole new trillion possibilities. Turing, a mathematical prodigy with an interest in solving puzzles, thinks he's just the man for the job. Denniston hires him despite an interview in which Alan displays his more inhospitable personality traits, and introduces him to the team he'll be working with, which includes Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), a handsome chess master, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), a boyish puzzle-solver, and John Cairncross (Allen Leech), a sharp Irishman. When Turing finds the need to hire new staff, he discovers a bright young woman named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who shares Turing's obsession with puzzles and may possibly be able to match his ability to solve them. Together they are told by Denniston and MI-6 agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) that not only is their work of supreme importance, but also the utmost secrecy. Not even their family and friends can know what they're planning to accomplish.
While Hugh and the boys try to break the code tirelessly before the midnight reset, Turing begins developing a code breaking machine. He hopes to create something that can think on its own, and Joan is the only member of the group who is supportive. As time passes, and Enigma is still no closer to being solved, Denniston's patience is tried and the rest of the group grow resentful of Alan as he spends his time with his expensive, homemade machine as opposed to helping them break the code in more traditional ways. When whiffs of a Soviet spy are aroused, Denniston is convinced that Turing and his irascible attitude is the guilty party, but lays dormant for Turing to give himself away. All the while, Turing focuses tirelessly hoping his machine, which he's called 'Christopher', will not only break Enigma, but revolutionize world technology. When Joan's parents, concerned about their still-unmarried daughter, ask her to leave the project and come home, Turing proposes to her to get her to stay, despite his own personal preferences. Once Hugh and the rest of them are convinced of Christopher's potential, they begin to work together, and as the group comes closer and closer to success, Alan's secret becomes more and more transparent. We know now that Turing and the group did in fact break Enigma, though it was not a known fact until the last few decades. What The Imitation Game thrives on is the complexity of Turing. It wants quite badly to see its socially-inept protagonist become a world hero.
I jest about Imitation Game's predilection for World War II, but perhaps the movie could have worked better if the war was the film's sole narrative arc. Instead the movie intercuts scenes from Alan's childhood, which show a young Alan (Alex Lawther), already a math genius falling in love with his boyhood friend, also named Christopher. We also see the investigation done by Detective Robert Knock (Rory Kinnear) in 1951, who searched for evidence to prove Turing was a Soviet spy, only to accidentally uncover that he was actually a homosexual, an illegal act in London at the time. The film's need to cover so many bases really compresses the information the film hopes to provide. Conflicts that no doubt spanned over months are compressed into single-scene arguments that resolve themselves conveniently. It feels like the CliffNotes version of the story. Not to mention the prudent way in which the film deals with its queer themes - it wants us to look down on an antiquated English society that criminalized homosexuality, but the movie itself doesn't even show Cumberbatch flirt with another male character, let alone be intimate with one. The director, Morten Tyldum, is a Norwegian filmmaker whose previous work I'm unfamiliar with, though it seems like this is his first English-language movie, and the film's broad tone gives the impression of more of a filmmaker-for-hire than an auteur. Movies like The Imitation Game don't exactly need an auteur to coax out an interesting film, but it does need a director with an individualistic vision and either Tyldum wasn't afforded the confidence of vision by his producers or he simply doesn't have it.
Tyldum isn't aided by the film's script, written by Graham Moore, which is preoccupied with obvious notes and unnecessary comic beats which appear all too often and too conveniently on cue, like it's a Katherine Heigl movie. This is the kind of material that few filmmakers can really succeed with. Stephen Frears is one of the few who can tell this story with the same broad tone and give it legitimate substance, but Tyldum doesn't seem yet up to that kind of challenge. The Imitation Game is not a terrible movie, but it is deafeningly mediocre, and the fact that it's anywhere near a Best Picture discussion is quite laughable. It plays too nice with the audience to be taken seriously and it leaves its characters and history in the dust. But it does have Cumberbatch's performance which is likely the best Turing interpretation that we're going to get in this generation, and holds so many moments of brilliance to justify the English actor's passionate fanbase. It's the small, mechanical details that Cumberbatch adds to the performance that make him the film's sole shining light. Winston Churchill claimed that Turing's machine which broke the Enigma code was the single most important contribution to the Allied victory and historians claim that his invention shortened the war by two years. This invention eventually laid the groundwork for what became the computer. We can appreciate now how important his discoveries were not only to the war effort but to modern society in general. The Imitation Game does understand the tragedy that he wasn't appreciated while he was alive, but it's a shame that it doesn't deliver a better film on which to communicate that appreciation.