Review: “The Imitation Game”

By Alan Mattli

The Imitation Game PosterBy developing something of a prototype to modern computers that was able to break the purportedly “unbreakable” Enigma code used by the Nazis to encrypt messages, British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing played an integral part in bringing about the Allied forces’ victory in World War II. Having been part of a covert operation, however, his actions remained a state secret for over fifty years; instead of public recognition, he faced only criminal prosecution in the postwar years because of his homosexuality. He died, possibly by his own hand, in 1954 at the age of 41.

This is, more or less, the story Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game focuses on over the course of its 115-minute runtime. To say that it doesn’t fulfill this task satisfactorily would not do it justice. The film is a well-crafted amalgam of historical thriller and biopic, a neat blend of big history and personalised behind-the-scenes narrative that manages to convey Turing’s private and professional struggles with a fair helping of emotional traction.

What it does, The Imitation Game does well – about that, there is little doubt. But it doesn’t offer much beyond that. Taking inspiration from Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, Tyldum has fashioned a movie in the vein of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech: destined to strike a chord with awards voters the world over, it is a perfectly safe, unoffensive tale of a troubled protagonist challenging adversity and proving all the naysayers wrong.

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It’s an odd choice of formula – which is better suited to, say, the fractionally inferior, but at least somewhat more daring, The Theory of Everything – because Turing, played with awkward wit and tremendous nuance by Benedict Cumberbatch, is not exactly what one would call a figure cut out for the role of the relatable hero. His passion for his work, his childlike enthusiasm about “games and puzzles” is engaging, to say the least – but he is also the kind of genius that lets everyone around him know that he is smarter than they are, save perhaps for fellow mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom he shares a profound emotional bond (which was promptly chided by Hodges as being “overstated”). Even though the film allows for some ambiguity in that respect, this is due to Cumberbatch’s excellent performance rather than Graham Moore’s utterly ordinary screenplay, which takes quite a liberal approach to historical accuracy, changing for instance the view Turing’s superior, Commander Alastair Denniston (an outstanding Charles Dance), takes on his codebreaking machine.

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In its more graceful scenes, Tyldum’s English-language sophomore work can be subtle, even moving, especially when it embraces the equivocality of its title and applies it not only to the British attempt to imitate the German coding methods but also to Turing’s struggle to adapt to a society that shuns him because of his extraordinary mind, his unconventional (and ultimately revolutionary) ideas about artificial intelligence, and his then illegal sexual orientation.

So this is by no means a bad film. It is an accomplished narrative feature in the famously reserved British way – expertly filmed and edited, rigorously doing away with any kind of narrative frills, sporting immaculate costumes and sets. But a movie can only be so streamlined before it starts to veer towards featurelessness. The Imitation Game gets the job done – no more, no less.

★★★★☆☆

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For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.

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