A Decent Imitation12/31/2014
Two films have been released this winter that are best described as character studies on real-life geniuses. The first was the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything,” and the second is the Christmas release of “The Imitation Game,” which looks at the life of Alan Turing. Unlike “Theory,” which covers the majority of Hawking’s life, “The Imitation Game” is focused mainly on the events between 1983 and 1945, which means it covers the two areas of Turing’s life that people are most familiar with and chooses to leave most of the rest of it behind.
To that end, “The Imitation Game” is the account of Turing’s military service, working with the newly growing MI6 with the goal of breaking the code behind the Nazi’s vaunted Enigma Machine. Enigma was largely thought to be unbreakable before the war, due mainly to the sheer number of possible variables it allowed for, it was work of no small importance to the Allied success in the war. The film follows Turing’s work with a small band of like-minded code breakers as they work to overcome the Enigma’s daunting challenges within the 24-hour time frame that each code cycle allows them. All the while, the group is excruciatingly aware of the fact that each unbroken message represents Allied lives lost. The group also consists of, among others, two-time British chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and cryptanalyst Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), all of whom, within the confines of the film at least, initially clash with Turing’s standoffish personality and bristle at his refusal to assist in manually breaking the codes. Eventually, of course, Turing’s plan to create a code breaking machine (the precursor to the first computers) winds up being the decision that breaks Enigma and ultimately shortens the War. Spoiler alert.
Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and while Eddie Redmayne’s work as Hawking in “Theory of Everything” was by far the more impressive physical performance, Cumberbatch’s work as Turing gets the edge emotionally. Knightley and Goode are both excellent in their roles as well, though the latter is dramatically underused.
The biggest issue “The Imitation Game” has is in the writing. Turing, of course, was living much of his life as a closeted homosexual — a lifestyle that was illegal in the UK until the latter half of the 20th century. And while the film makes it clear that it is using the idea of Enigma as a metaphor for Turing’s life, script writer Graham Moore has chosen to leave the issue mostly off the screen. It’s impossible to completely avoid the topic, of course, as the end years of Turing’s life were marred by an indecency conviction, chemical castration and an apparent suicide. But Moore addresses it mostly through some ill-paced time jumps in the story. In its place, Moore gives Turing a personality that borders upon Asperger Syndrome and attempts to manufacture a level of personal conflict within the code breaking group that feels about as trite as it is imagined.
The film is well acted, but it is a shame that Moore and director Morten Tyldum felt the need to inject “The Imitation Game” with a false point of tension, because, as the story of the men and women who solved Hitler’s unsolvable problem, there are plenty of genuine thrills to be had. CV
“The Imitation Game”
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode.