Starring a host of some the most prestigious younger crowd of British actors, at the very least this movie was going to be entertaining, if not by the numbers biopic. Based on a true story The Imitation Game follows Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) an English mathematician and logician, who goes on to help crack the Enigma code during World War II. What grants the film it’s gripping nature is that we know how the story ends. We know that Alan Turing was prosecuted for being gay, we know he was given the choice between chemical castration or jail time and that he picked the former, we know that he would later go on to commit suicide. We also know that someone who should have been considered a hero for decades was only legally and posthumously pardoned in 2013. That’s a crime within itself. Knowing the depth of his tragedy allows for the eye of retrospect when watching this film .
And tragic it is, from the very beginning of the film Turing is being either belittled, condescended to or is consistently met with nothing greater than an eye roll. He lacks typical interpersonal skills which is why he gravitates so strongly to his Enigma cracking machine, one of which he names Christopher in regards to an old friend who he cared for deeply. This isn’t a feel good film but it also doesn’t linger in the grim and macabre more than it needs to. Despite the way the story ends it does begin with some levity, even humor, but it soon dies down as they group of Enigma code breakers must race against the clock day in and day out to try and solve the worlds hardest puzzle in order to put an end to a devastating war.
Biopics are often hit or miss for me and typically it all rests on the director; on how the story is going to move forward and, crucially, how the film is paced. We don’t know everything about Turing by the movies end and we haven’t seen every moment of his life. We know what was significant to him. We never see him family only hear him reference his mother but we see a lot of who he considers to be his first love, Christopher. We see how acts of violence in the past have made him averse to it, even apathetic, to the point where logic is the only emotional response one should have in times of crisis. We see his years at Bletchley Park working on Enigma and his work with Joan and Hugh and we see his slight dalliance with the MI6 although it was more a manipulation on the latter. This isn’t a biopic determined to squeeze every bit of his life into the just under two hour film. Instead it’s a film that flirts with time, and paces itself in order to build the more rewarding momentum. It’s this, the jumps between his school years and 1951, the year he was prosecuted, and an emotionally charged moment of revelation that makes the third act remarkable. Director Morten Tyldum does a lot with his time frame and that within itself is enough for me ignore some of his sillier, running montage moments. He made math look exciting.
The cast is all strong if not often under-utilized which is a shame considering the wealth of talent they got on board. From Charles Dance to Mark Strong to Matthew Goode the supporting cast makes a rich list of characters even if they’re often playing second fiddle to Turing. Keira Knightley suffers the most from this because Joan Clarke could have easily been the most interesting character of the film but wasn’t given nearly enough screen time to be properly fleshed out. It’s also worth noting that Knightley is having quite a year with movies such as this, Laggies and Begin Again, and I’m waiting for her to get her big moment role soon.
The greatest surprise of the film was Alex Lawther who played a young Alan Turing. I don’t know if it was simply uncanny casting (and Nina Gold is phenomenal at building impressive casts) or if Lawther was simply mimicking Cumberbatch’s acting style for the film expertly, but he did very strong work. One scene in particular where he learns of some terrible news is worthy of note.
However, unsurprisingly, this is Cumberbatch’s movie and he runs away with the role. I’ve seen people talk of him working well within his limited range and I have to wonder if we’re watching the same films. Sure, he has an affinity for playing the distant geniuses but his work as Turing is so subtle and so beautifully crafted and it doesn’t simply replicate prior work. From the stutter he has only when he’s worked up or emotional, to the charm he infuses into what could be a woefully infuriating character, and the beginning hints of his tragic end in the third act, Cumberbatch has done a marvelous job with this character and reminded me why I enjoy watching his performances. His character lived a life of secrecy in both his personal and professional lives and his dedication to the role allowed audiences to witness the wear and tear that would do to ones person.
This won’t necessarily be the oft remembered film of 2014, the most notable and with such stiff competition this year, not even the Oscar darling that Harvey Weinstein is likely hoping for, but it’s a highly entertaining and respectful film of a very interesting, very tragic man. No matter the story watching a person who should have been held in the highest regards, been looked at as a hero, instead be seen persecuted, is always going to make for moving storytelling. Turing, from what we gather from the film either from the way he’s written or the way Cumberbatch plays him, was mildly mannered, superbly intelligent, lonely and passionate about his work. Looked to as the founding father of the notion of Artificial Intelligence and revered by fellow mathematicians for his insight to computers, Turing was an inspiration for many but his successes for a time were overlooked due to his sexuality. His is yet another cautionary tale from history of what happens when you take away basic human rights and inject meaningless propaganda and sensationalism in order to cause judgement. It’s a good film, an entertaining film, maybe not a great film, but I hope it gets a wide audience so people can learn about his story because this film proves that it was worth telling.