Review: 'The Imitation Game'


[vc_row][vc_column width="2/3"][vc_column_text disable_pattern="true" align="left" margin_bottom="0"]There's a biopic formula (discussed in our reviews of both Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything) that's difficult to deviate from. A character with a complicated past displays a gift and turns enemies into friends as he or she climbs to the top of their profession of choice, only to stumble at the peak. Occasionally, they rise again; sometimes they do not. It tugs at the heartstrings and reminds us all how unique and fragile true genius can be. We've seen it a hundred times over, but it's overused because it can work. When a biopic is slapped together, it feels rote and distasteful: A mule fancied up like a show horse. But when a script is solid, the actors are committed and a director makes those oft-hackneyed moments shine, audiences get sucked in and nitpicking becomes a chore rather than a necessity. Such is the case with The Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch sinks his teeth into the first leading role worth of his talents (sorry, The Fifth Estate) as Alan Turing, a British mathematician who invented what would come to be the computer. My knowledge of Turing beforehand could be summed up in a few bullet points:

  • The aforementioned computer invention
  • Was gay
  • Broke a Nazi code during World War II

What I didn't realize was how persecuted Turing was, first for being an socially awkward young prodigy and then for being a homosexual in an era where that was not only distasteful but punishable by law. He's recruited as a code-breaker whose sole purpose is to decrypt Enigma, Nazi Germany's unbreakable messaging system. The British government asks them to decode each message one by one, but Turing has another plan: Build a machine that can test the nearly unlimited options on its own. This sounds like insanity to both wartime commanders and fellow code-breakers alike, and complications arise in kind.

Cumberbatch paints a Turing whose arrogance is a necessity (no one would understand his plans anyway) and a shield (no one has given a shit before, why would they start now). Cumberbatch can be beyond charming, and several scenes take advantage of his natural allure, but his greatest strength here is turning that down to zero when necessary and emitting an aura of distastefulness. It's never enough for us to turn on him, but as in the excellent Sherlock you can see why the general populace might thumb their nose at such an distant, haughty sort.

In the end, however, those traits are what makes a man like Turing capable of brilliance. Because he's such a pragmatist, he's able to make tough choices that ultimately benefit the greater good. Because he's been taunted his whole life, he strives for a perfection that's considered unattainable. A happy, healthy person is unlikely to push him or herself to the levels that Turing reaches, and Cumberbatch brings us a man who knows he's broken but cannot resist trudging forward anyway. Near the end of the film, he asks someone if he's a man or a machine and grows even wearier when they cannot answer. The sunken look on Cumberbatch's face as he plods through the remnants of a life bereft of honesty or peace is a powerful one indeed.

He's accompanied by a cavalcade of England's finest, including Keira Knightley as a fellow code-breaker striving to overcome her own oppression and Matthew Goode as a suave coworker who learns to appreciate Turing's idiosyncrasies. Toss in the usual sterling gruff performances from Charles Dance (also known as Tywin Lannister) and Mark Strong (complete with wispy toupee) and you've got a cast worthy of this unique story.

Director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian making his English-language debut, proves to be an efficient caretaker. He takes a bit too much care in reminding us that a war is ravaging the world with clumsy intercutting of real-life footage from the 1940s, and his jumping between timelines feels awkward at times – we don't need a reminder of what year we're in after every 60-second scene – but he builds toward a picture-perfect Eureka moment that, despite everyone knowing how that element of the story will end, proves genuinely engaging. His direction and Graham Moore's script also handle Turing's homosexuality with sensibility; it's painted as one element of a complicated life, not a shocking realization that defines him as a human being.

The Imitation Game doesn't break new ground, but besides a few missteps – Turing's emotional pain is said to stem from one particular instance which, while heartbreaking, gets leaned upon a bit too often – it makes excellent use of a maligned formula. For a biopic, that's about all you can ask.

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  • Directed by: Morten Tyldum
  • Written by: Graham Moore
  • Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
  • Runtime: 114 minutes
  • Release date: November 28, 2014


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