Walking into The Imitation Game, I expected some variation of A Beautiful Mind with two socially inept geniuses cracking secret codes and beating Nazis/Soviets. But Morten Tyldum’s English-language debut more resembles Tom Hooper’s 2011 Best Picture The King’s Speech. Both focus on famous British figures (King George VI and Alan Turning) fighting against isolation and working towards a seemingly impossible goal (relatively speaking). The lead actors (Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch) deliver incredible performances paired with strong second leads (Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley). And both debut in a year when Christopher Nolan might sweep the effects categories at the Oscars (Inception and Interstellar). This last bit might be less important. Blasphemous as it may be to Firth-lovers, I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the brilliant mathematician even more than Firth’s Academy Award winning depiction of a stuttering George VI. Any press on The Imitation Game you come across will likely feature Cumberbatch’s career-elevating performance. The Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star demonstrates remarkable range and emotion throughout the film and deserves every scrap of praise flying around internet press houses. Like Firth showing both the insecure and regal side of his role, Cumberbatch shows the many sides of Alan Turing. Through his performance we appreciate his genius, his isolation, his vulnerability and his strength.
According to data compiled by Flashback/Backslide field reporters, roughly thirty-seven World War II films debut every year. Fury was the year’s most publicized WWII film but while Brad Pitt’s uneven adventure added tank battles back to the genre, The Imitation Game reintroduced espionage and code-breaking. Nic Cage’s Windtalkers from 2002 is basically the same movie. Except in that movie the Japanese military try to break an American code based on the Navajo language and here British intelligence agents toil over machines to crack a Nazi code. One features Nic Cage protecting his Navajo speaking Private on the battlefield and the other takes place in British cottages. Also, one is an over-the-top garbage heap and the other is one of the best films of the year. Yes, Windtalkers sprinkles in some cryptography but the majority of the film plays out in battle. The Imitation Game‘s drama takes place primarily in a sleepy English town alongside a few well-placed moments depicting the hardships of those living through the war including shots of families waiting out bombings in subway tunnels during the Battle of Britain as well as the evacuation of children from London (only a handful of whom are able to eventually rule Narnia). Important as the wartime era is in the story, much of the film takes place in different periods. Turning’s youth is portrayed by the wonderfully cast and remarkably capable Alex Lawther who shows us Turning’s early torments and touching pursuit of love and human connection. The film’s opening moments introduce us to Turning’s later life including his unceremonious treatment at the hands of the British government he so instrumentally aided.
The Imitation Game is a war film, a mystery thriller, a love story, and a period piece all at once. Yet through all these angles it still manages to be Turning’s story. Graham Moore’s screenplay was at the top of 2011’s Black List, the list of highest regarded screenplays yet to be put to screen. And thank god it was finally taken off the list. Crafting a good movie is like cooking a good meal. The seasoned chef knows when to start boiling water so the pasta will be ready just as the chicken finishes its three hour bake and right when those vegetables wrap up their five minute skillet session. (Okay, okay, I basically only eat prepared, store-bought chicken with prepared, store-bought hummus (occasionally with black pepper) so I don’t really know enough about cooking to describe the steps it takes to make a full meal). Just as the chef knows how to time everything for maximum effect, the screenwriter knows when to introduce, table, then reintroduce certain narrative elements; some are introduced early only to fester in the back of our minds until the finale, others come halfway through then storm back just before the climax. Moore and Tyldum’s pacing is extraordinarily well managed considering everything the ambitious film attempts to tackle. The sequences showcasing the school-aged Turning cut in at specific times to impact the main timeline playing out during the war. For example, one childhood sequence shows Turning forced cruelly below wooden baseboards and nailed into a makeshift coffin beneath the floor (somewhat like the hiding place of the Dreyfuss family uncovered by Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds) just as the main timeline Turning finds himself pressured by other characters. Likewise, the later timeline cuts in during a narrative intersection in the main timeline in a way that suggests Turning is a double agent siphoning secrets to the Soviets. Through Moore’s excellent staging, Turning’s life is presented as dramatically as possible without belying its realities. After all, the stories of all three timelines occupy frames in the same film. They may as well bolster each other’s narratives.
One topic this review has touched on but not directly addressed is the cause of Turning’s aforementioned isolation and the injustices he suffered later in life. Turning’s homosexuality is subtly addressed throughout the film and becomes one of the central focuses of the narrative as the movie presses on, especially in the later timeline as Turning is charged with gross indecency for his sexual relationship with another man. At the time homosexual relationships of any kind were banned according to the Labouchere Amendment. As punishment Turning was forced to undergo hormone therapy in order to chemically castrate him in an attempt to treat his homosexuality which was then viewed as a mental illness. In the film’s ending text, we learn that Turning committed suicide just before his 42nd birthday. His cause of death was determined to be cyanide ingestion which was alluded to in one of the film’s early scenes. Turning’s suicide is often attributed, at least in part, to the hormonal therapy he was forced to undergo. In those same final text-cards we also learn of a royal pardon given to Turning years after his death. What the film does not mention is that the pardon came only after a human rights campaign petitioned for Turning’s pardon and government recognition of his work. The pardon was finally given in 2013 after years of activism and blocked attempts including the rejection of a petition which collected over 34,000 signatures in 2011.
As remarkable and unsettling as the story of Turning’s conviction, death, and pardon may be, The Imitation Game focuses on his life and its work. His homosexuality is certainly a focus and moments are afforded to make the case for acceptance and tolerance. Sadly these moments are still needed today as equality for the LGBT community remains elusive. The Imitation Game chooses to incorporate themes of inequality and oppression, and some of its best quotable moments lie in this field, but the film does not elect to have these themes dominate the story. And that would be unfair. This is not the story of Harvey Milk running for political office as an openly gay man in California. Spotlighting Turning’s homosexuality alone would be a minimizing mistake and betray his larger story and the role his sexual orientation plays in shaping that story.
Turning’s life, and Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him, separates The Imitation Game from A Beautiful Mind, yet another Academy Award winner. Turning’s story allows the film to tackle broader themes than A Beautiful Mind‘s (questionable) biography of Nobel Prize winning John Nash. Through Turning, Tyldum explores relationships, war-time guilt, service, isolation and many more elements, each given their own time and space to develop. Near the film’s end, Turning addresses Detective Nock: “Your turn to be the judge. What am I? A machine? A person? A war hero? A criminal?” The confounded detective responds simply with “No… I can’t judge you.” The film stops short of casting firm judgement on Turning’s life and role in the war, as Nock does in the film. With complicated dynamics, force-feeding sentiment inorganically would unnecessary and hollow. Instead The Imitation Game sticks mostly to the true story and sets the bar high for The Theory of Everything, the second competitor in this year’s Battle for the British Biopics which had its worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival about a week after The Imitation Game was released at Telluride.
Bottomline: A superb film and welcome addition to the historical drama genre. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance has put him on the shortlist of frontrunners to win the Best Actor Oscar along with Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), all three of whom have been nominated for the equally prestigious Flashback Award for Best Actor.
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