Film Review: “The Imitation Game” — A Delicate Balance

The Imitation Game is a movie that should have made us angry, but it merely makes us sad.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum. At screens around New England.

Benedict Cumberbach as Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game."

Benedict Cumberbach as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

By Paul Dervis

The Imitation Game opened with much fanfare, heralded as an exciting World War II espionage yarn that also proffered a compelling social message. However, like all too many contemporary films that promise substance but settle for escapism, this movie sacrifices what should have been an incisive look at a bitter, hard-edged reality for a sentimental through-line. The political is reduced to the personal — in this case, a melodrama that plucks at our heartstrings.

For those who are not familiar with the real life story, Alan Turing was the genius who broke Enigma, the Nazi’s seemingly unbreakable secret coding system. He did it by creating a machine that would turn out to be the forerunner of the computer, enabling British Intelligence to foresee the movements and planned attacks of the enemy.

The problem with the film partly lies with its source. Drawn from Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma and not Breaking the Code, the powerful 1986 stage play by Hugh Whitemore, the narrative ends up focusing on the pathos of Turing’s challenging life rather than on the cruel social injustice of his treatment by others, including the British government.

Not that The Imitation Game is without its rewards. Director Morton Tyldum, a Norwegian with no English language film credits until this film (and few full-length movie credits for that matter) has created a tightly woven movie that jumps with well-structured ease from the late ’30s to the mid ’20s and then the early ’50s. He creates three different stories simultaneously…and it worked. Also, the attention to lighting and historical detail (costumes, setting, hairstyles, and even make-up) in the various time periods was refreshingly on-target. The bleak earth tone backdrop for the young Turing’s hellish existence in boarding school was chilling. The spartan vision of housing during World War II nicely evoked an England under siege, and the gentleness of Turning’s home in the ’50s spoke volumes about his quiet life, ensconced in a determinedly sedate middle-aged lifestyle.

Benedict Cumberbatch played Turing with a deadpan stillness that demands viewers try to figure out the character’s secret code — what is underneath his mask? It was a controlled yet still dynamic performance from an actor who knows how to suggest the enigma of the human psyche.

Keira Knightley was cast in the role of Joan Clarke, the female decoder. She is an uneven actress, but here she proved to be extremely effective, her flickers of effusiveness amid the era’s drabness providing just the right contrast to Cumberbatch’s portrait of the repressed Turing.

The bulk of this film centers on the work of Turing and his staff during the war. At times it felt as if the British higher-ups were as as much the enemy as the Nazis. He had to fight to get the funding he needed to build his machine — things were so difficult that his own staff came close to revolting. He hired a woman who clearly understood his project better than her male counterparts, but her presence in this inner sanctum of male privilege became a contentious issue.

And then there was his homosexuality.

Turing was closeted, as most gays were in England during that period. Homosexuality was still a crime. But most of his peers knew or at least suspected his proclivities, and that would come back to haunt him. The sexual issues were dealt with in the film convincingly, both the experiences of the teen-aged Turing (mercilessly picked on by his brutish classmates, but befriended by one sterling student) as well as the character’s silent yearnings during the war.

But at the end of The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore and Tyldum choose to look at the harrowing final years of this delicate man with a sweetened, modern day sensibility. Suffice it to say that their aim is to ‘preach to the converted.’ This is a story that should have made us angry, but it merely makes us sad.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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