The Imitation Game Dir. Morten Tyldum

[The Weinstein Company; 2014]

Styles: drama, war, biopic
Others: The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, Enigma

Handsomely produced by The Weinstein Company, The Imitation Game is the latest middling historical thriller about a misunderstood genius. It looks and sounds exactly as it should, without anything that might offend Academy voters. The frustrating thing about Graham Moore’s formulaic script is how material for a more daring, innovative film is hidden by the stifling need for a simple three-act structure. Rather annoyingly, Moore and director Morten Tyldum prefer to tell and not show: this is a war film without any violence, a love story without any affection, and a biopic without much insight. Because the performances are strong and the script is crisply written, at least it entertains more than it frustrates.

While most of the film is set in the south of England during World War 2, Moore and Tyldum begin with a flash forward to 1951. Mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brought in for questioning by a detective (Rory Kinnear) who’s curious about Turing’s absent military record, and his statement is the narrative frame for the flashbacks that comprise the film. During the war, Turing offers his services to Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, glowering as always). Turing intuits that British Intelligence must decipher the Enigma machine in order to decrypt Germany’s daily messages, so he joins a top-secret band of brilliant code-breakers.

Instead of deciphering the code by hand — Germany resets the cipher every day — he intends to build a machine that could work as fast as Enigma. Turing annoys his colleagues — the screenplay implies he’s on the Autism spectrum — but he’s somewhat humanized after he hires the brilliant Joan (Keira Knightley), who is slightly more patient. And to the apparent delight of a MI6 handler (Mark Strong), everyone gets involved in each other’s secrets.

Prior to The Imitation Game Tyldum directed Headhunters, a terrific Norwegian thriller in which a con man literally wades through shit in order to elude capture. Here, Tyldum shows no capacity for letting his characters get dirty, or even tying suspense to action. Instead, Moore’s script is the only thing that creates any plot inertia: we know Turing is genius because he repeats it, over and over again, as if Moore (and the Weinsteins by extension) do not trust us to figure it out for ourselves. There are abundant shots of the blitzkrieg and Londoners hiding in subway tunnels, yet they’re filmed in such a perfunctory way that they get in the way of central story.

The Imitation Game teems with expository dialogue. Admittedly, the details of the plot are thorny, as are the stakes at any given moment, but there’s no attempt to combine exposition with character. The audience learns about everyone’s depths and personality traits because the characters literally tell us what to think. When the big epiphany comes, one that pushes Turing out of his mathematical rut, it’s so simple that it’s a distraction. There is no apparent interest in the actual business of code-breaking, so this film is as clumsily written as an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, except with better costumes.

While parts of the film pander to our sense of superiority, not our intelligence, there are still moments where the actors somehow elevate the material. As Turing, Cumberbatch can find an emotional note when his performance is physical, not witty. Nicknamed “Christopher,” the code-breaking machine is a giant god damn metaphor for Turing’s inability to decode simple human behavior, which would be annoying if it not for a scene where Cumberbatch literally stands in the way of its destruction, his considerable frame reduced to one of a small boy. It is a moving moment, as are his scenes with Knightley, which nearly approach tenderness.

The best parts of The Imitation Game are about Turing’s maddening personality, and how it sometimes brings an advantage. The most intriguing material comes late in film, when Turing and the others realize that cold-hearted logic is the only thing that will keep the Germans from realizing that their code is broken. Again Cumberbatch speaks with the detached melancholy that defines his performance, except this time his quirks are more useful than inhuman. Knightley and Matthew Goode serve as red-blooded foils for Turing’s personality, and even they concede that impersonal statistics are the only way to win the war. Unfortunately, Tyldum and Moore gloss over the aftermath of that epiphany because, once again, this is a movie about a mathematician with seemingly no curiosity about math.

Moore’s script supplies Turing with homosexuality, but no sense of his capacity for physical attraction. Joan and fellow code-breaker John (Allen Leech) both admit they “have their suspicions” about Turing’s preference for men, except Tyldum and Moore never give Cumberbatch an opportunity to express them. Again, this an example of a script that tells us what we need to know, a lazy trick that happens whenever a writer would rather not get into the details of a person’s complicated life. Turing admits he has affairs and there’s a late scene where we learn he submits to hormone therapy, yet the film’s desire for emotion is lost because it apparently finds it revolting to see two men embrace, so the audience cannot see the scope of Turing’s loss.

The Turing Test is a way to determine whether something is human, or a machine pretending to be human. The Imitation Game wants us to question whether Alan Turing — the character in the film and not the actual man — could pass the test. Time and time again, Cumberbatch’s Turing answers questions in a way that typical humans do not. The misfire of The Imitation Game is that every character, not just Cumberbatch’s, would fail the Turing Test. Except for the occasional glimpse, no one in the film acts like a human, and instead behave like avatars of humanity that are designed to express flawed virtue, all in favor of gold statues. There is a fascinating film that could be made about Turing, one that explores the depth of his intellect and personality. Instead, we know he’s a troubled genius because, well, it’s just that time of the year for movies.

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