The Imitation Game is a fantastic piece of historical theater that never fully embraces its cinematic identity.
The Imitation Game exposes a little-known part of WWII: mathematician Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) top-secret quest to crack the Nazi coded message system known as “Enigma”. Working at Bletchley Park alongside other accomplished code breakers like Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and the uniquely gifted Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Turing proposes a radical concept: building a ‘thinking machine’ that can outfox the German system.
However, Alan’s greatest obstacle proves to be his own mind. With few social skills and little regard for the intellect of others, Turing quickly finds himself isolated from the group, with wolves like Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) waiting for any opportunity to tear down both him and his work. Through the patience and compassion of his fellow code-breakers, Alan slowly learns to play the socio-political game that will help him achieve his critical vision. But beating Enigma proves to be only one big challenge in the tragic life of an eccentric genius.
Based on the pivotal book, Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, The Imitation Game is a film that manages to offer new insights into the exhausted WWII movie sub-genre, buoyed by some fantastic performances from a great ensemble cast. While the script and performances may be strong, the movie is not all that it can be on a cinematic level, providing one of more uninteresting onscreen portraits of the war itself.
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) is at his best when staging the film like a stage play. The scene composition is simple, the cinematography crisp and modern, and the production design a fitting throwback to the WWII era. Tyldum lets the actors work out each scene with little intrusion, and as a result, most of the onscreen interactions between characters are intriguing to watch.
What is not so intriguing, is the depiction of the war outside of the academic mission at Bletchley. A combination of stock footage and game board-looking military sequences are supposed to depict WWII battles – and possibly the discrepancy between the code breakers’ imaginings of combat and the actual reality of the war. However, seeing well-staged scenes of conversation juxtaposed to cheap-looking recreations of warfare actually creates the atmosphere of watching a well-done (but budgeted) BBC docudrama, rather than a major motion picture. It’s not a deal-breaker of any sort, but it’s enough to keep The Imitation Game from really achieving top levels of cinematic greatness as a film – as opposed to serving as a strong actor showcase.
The film represents the first feature-length script by writer Graham Moore, and even with the usual biopic criticisms (certain liberties taken, certain information skimmed over or left out), it’s still a pretty effective narrative. Using a flashback framing device (Turing’s post-war troubles, his wartime heroism, and boyhood traumas), we get a solid character through-line tracking how this eccentric genius was always hindered by his own eccentricities, which included an ‘Asperger-ish’ personality and closeted homosexuality – the latter of which was considered a crime by British law of that time.
With a solid central focus on Alan – and conversely a thematic focus on the rewards of genius vs. the cost – Moore is free to open things up a bit, mining great wit and deeper insight via other characters who surround Turing. Much like Cumberbatch’s star-making role as a fictional iconic Brit (Sherlock), most of The Imitation Games’ fun is found in how normal individuals react to this incredibly abnormal man.
To that end, Cumberbatch invokes part of his Sherlock character mannerisms – but manages to flesh them out with much more nuance and subtly to provide much deeper insight into the complex man Alan Turing was. It would be easy to dismiss the performance as a Sherlock knockoff (and savvy viewers may do just that), but looking at the role independently, it is quite good and worthy of some (if not all) awards consideration.
Matthew Goode (Watchmen) and Keira Knightley (Atonement) prove to be fantastic supporting foils for Cumberbatch. Goode exudes suave confidence, charm, and well-layered angst as the more personable genius, Hugh Alexander, and he and Turing’s relationship proves to be a solid secondary arc of the story. Similarly, Knightley has cute charm and strong composure as a brilliant woman living in a sexist era. Her interactions with Cumberbatch (though perhaps embellishing the real Joan/Alan story) help to ground things, and offer entry into other aspects of Turning’s personality (bad and good) aside from his lauded genius. Indeed, watching Turing attempt socialization with Hugh and Joan is often as gripping as watching the trio trying to crack the Enigma puzzle.
The larger supporting cast includes veteran thespians like Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) and Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) – as well as quality younger actors like Allen Leech (The Tudors), Rory Kinnear (Skyfall) and Matthew Beard (An Education). No matter their respective experience, all of the actors seem to effortlessly breathe life into their respective characters, and function with snappy wit as an ensemble. Leech and Kinnear get some particularly interesting subplots to play out, and do so with such control and subtly it may be hard to spot at first (the mark of great character actors). Finally, young actor Alex Lawther gives a breakout performance as the young version of Turing struggling through a pivotal point in his life.
In the end, The Imitation Game is a fantastic piece of historical theater that never fully embraces its cinematic identity. The subject matter alone sets it apart as more interesting and insightful than the average movie memoir – and combined with the performances of Cumberbatch and Co., it’s definitely a winner. However, with limited cinematic scope it wouldn’t be a shame if you missed this one in theaters and instead, waited for home release; but if you want to get a lead on the 2015 awards race, this is definitely required viewing.
The Imitation Game is now playing in limited release. It expands to wider release in the forthcoming weeks – check your local theater for showings. The movie is 114 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and… “historical smoking.”