Galvanising intense performances from a stellar cast, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a war movie to stir the blood, but trips up over its queer hero.
Code Unknown by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Over seventy years after the Second World War, recognising Alan Turing’s contribution to the war effort has long been overdue. Shrouded in the subterfuge of official secrets acts and the criminal concealment of being gay in the 1940s and ’50s, Turing’s incredible achievements – breaking the Enigma Code and inventing the computer – have long been cast into the shadows by Turing’s personal affairs, prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, sentenced to chemical castration and only finally (and royally) pardoned in 2013. And with a brilliant performance from “Le Cumberbatch”, Morten Tyldum’s film focuses on the unlikable genius – both war hero and victim. Angling for a conflict on two fronts, The Imitation Game is both a stirring war movie and a political plea for gay rights – even the title contains a double meaning, describing the game of imitation required to crack the Nazi code, but also the personal mimicry of pretending to be normal. There’s no doubt The Imitation Game is a film with big ambitions, but is it the biopic Turing deserves?
Mathematics and Cambridge graduate, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is being interviewed by Great War veteran Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) for a top-secret role decrypting the Enigma Code at Station X. Despite a woeful interview, Turing’s knack for deciphering puzzles sees him through, and he is put in a team under the leadership of chess grandmaster Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and under the supervision of MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong). While the other codebreakers attempt to break each day’s code before the key is reset at midnight, Turing designs a machine capable of computing the permutations but costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, and when his request is blocked, he writes to Winston Churchill to have his computer funded, half the team sacked and himself team leader. It’s a coup that leads to the recruitment of crossword whiz Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) but at loggerheads with a seething Denniston.
Despite the enormity of Bletchley Park’s importance to the war effort, cryptology doesn’t necessarily make for the best cinema. So while Michael Apted’s Enigma plunged for familiar thriller territory of femmes fatales and double agents, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is almost a cross between a Turing biopic and a heroes-on-the-home-front war rouser. His first English language film after the wickedly funny Headhunter, The Imitation Game struggles desperately with its tone – attempting to find a humorous lightness beneath its weighty stories of history and prejudice, but grating with an awkward clumsiness through its three interwoven chronologies (boyhood, war and his arrest in Manchester).
The premise that Turing is telling his story during a police interview makes for a natty storytelling device, but undermines the man’s integrity from the start, breaching the Official Secrets Act – which of course, he never actually did. And although Cumberbatch is mesmerising as the tic-ridden nervous but arrogant genius, Turing is cast as an effete mummy’s boy more interested in solving puzzles than any “For God and Country” valour. And while there’s an awkward (albeit fitting) homophobia to the 1950s police investigation, Tyldum finds a ‘solution’ of sorts to the tragedy of Turing’s life in the logic of a man who cannot be normal, a singularity which makes him capable of extraordinary things – a little trite perhaps, even if its heart is in the right place.
Nevertheless, there are good things about Tyldum’s The Imitation Game too, which runs along at a breakneck pace, and makes the drama of cryptography captivating. It’s a moving film – and the wartime segment is particularly intense – even if the schoolboy crush and the crushed university professor chronologies advance little more than the comforting texture of a start and an end to Turing’s life. And while The Imitation Game is a good summation of the academic’s highs and the lows, and a fitting tribute to his great legacy, Tyldum’s film is a frustratingly clumsy biopic – over-egging Turing’s role, who here seems to bring the Second World War to an end singlehandedly. And as a biopic of Turing’s life it’s a disappointingly pale imitation.
The Imitation Game is released on 14th November 2014 in the UK