So along comes The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the scientist who helped break secret Nazi codes in World War 2 and helped Britain and America give Germany a good buggering. Turing was also responsible for creating the backbone for personal digital computing and artificial intelligence, and was also castrated by the British government for being a homosexual. Turns out, The Imitation Game has been aptly named - it perfectly emulates every historical World War 2 drama about a legendary man who changed the war and the course of history.
We’re introduced to a very handsome Cumberbatch as the young and mildly cocky Turing who enlists in the MI6 as a code breaker. He has no experience in warfare nor in the art of interviewing. But he gets the job because he knows stuff that the general public doesn’t – that the Nazis use a special code called Enigma to coordinate naval attacks. Turing knows that the British army needs him, and that he can do great things with his already well established research on AI. He also knows that there is no human on the planet smart enough to crack the unbreakable Enigma code – so he comes up with the idea to design a code breaking machine to break the Nazi code machine.
Now a film about an incredibly smart man designing a machine that changed the course of history is hard to dislike. There are a few things that The Imitation Game does right, like Cumberbatch’s winning and sensitive performance, and the production design that renders the chilly atmosphere of England in WW2. Plus it’s a great story to tell. Unfortunately Hollywood, as expected manages to commit the same mistake that most biopics do: being too simplistic. It’s curious that three Hollywood films releasing this week have the same common strand of drawbacks – they’re all biopics and are all scrubbed clean to make their protagonists more sympathetic.
And it’s frustrating that the film is directed by Morten Tyldum, who so audaciously transcended the elements of formula in his native Norwegian film Headhunters. While that movie had characters without clear segments of antagonism or protagonism, The Imitation Game paints its characters in very broad strokes. We’re repeatedly told Turing is a great man, and the Brits were utterly rubbish towards him, and the Nazis are horrible as well. And yet, none of those three things are explored in depth. We’re shown Turing’s machine that beat the Enigma – but no detail on how he went around building it. What does the machine exactly do? What is it made of? How long did it take to build? How exactly does it break the Enigma code? We’re told nothing – in one scene Turing is struggling to fight bureaucrats who don’t believe in him, in the next they’re rejoicing over the machine being built and working.
Since that is an unconvincing plot point, the gaps are filled with other unconvincing plot points, like Turing’s homosexuality. It’s rendered in a ham handed way, with flashback scenes that keep appearing in dramatic plot points just before they culminate. So even when Cumberbatch is doing his best to move you, the sensitivity just doesn’t come across, because by then you already know the film is trying too hard in some places to gain sympathy from you, and not trying enough in other places to genuinely move you.
There is a whole subplot featuring Kiera Knightley as Turing’s student who eventually is about to marry him, and the dynamics and complications of a woman marrying a gay man are never explored. And when the gay angle is brought in, the film is too scared to give you the full details of Turing’s life. The most important chunk of Turing’s life when he was living in with a homeless man is excised completely. Nor are there any concrete details on his life after the war, when he was lonely and depressed, and forced to chemically castrate himself. Even his death is portrayed by white text rather than by visuals, so it becomes hard to pinpoint what exactly the film was trying to portray, when everything it attempts waltzes by like a checklist of episodes. There’s also a bunch of people in the secondary cast, like Matthew Goode and Mark Strong, who enter and exit the frame without much to do.
The Imitation Game is not a terrible film, it’s just mediocre. If only the writer Graham Moore spent some more time fleshing out Turing’s life in a less Hollywoody, less Oscar baitey and a more nuanced manner.
(First published in Mid Day)