Dec 1, 2014

The Imitation Game [12A]

Dir: Morten Tyldum
The story of the breaking of the Enigma code, a breakthrough which, if it didn't actually win us the whole thing, shortened World War Two considerably, is one that should be full of drama and of rich and interesting characters.   This telling, while not especially bad in any way, never really has either of those things.

The film focuses on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), his relationship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a brilliant young member of the team at Bletchley Park, his building of Christopher; the computer that would crack Enigma and the secret that would ultimately lead to a horrible injustice against him later in life.

If you think that suggests that the film's focus is scattered then, frustratingly, you'd be right.  While all of these elements were important in Turing's life, trying to tell them all (plus a flashback to his school days) in roughly 105 minutes discounting the credits means that The Imitation Game struggles either to find a central thread or to tell any of its smaller stories especially satisfyingly.

The fact that we all know how the story ends (both for good and for ill) shouldn't be a reason for a film to fail to engage as a thriller.  Director Morten Tyldum tries hard to bring that edge of tension to the development of Christopher, but it never comes off.  Zodiac, ultimately, is a film about men looking through information in boxes and slowly building it into a complete picture, but it's also an intensive character study of those men and what drives their obsession.  Both sides of this seem to go missing from The Imitation Game.  

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly fine as Turing, but the performance is never anything more than that; Benedict Cumberbatch putting on a convincing period accent and convincing period clothing to give a performance.  I got a sense that I was being told who Alan Turing was and watching re-enactments of moments from his life, rather than living inside those moments with him, which is the sense of immersion achieved by Zodiac.

We get a sense of the reason behind the building of Christopher and of Turing's drive to achieve it, but the process itself is left largely offscreen and little attempt is made to explain how the machine works.  We see the stages of its building, but not the nuts and bolts work, so the achievement doesn't seem quite as hard won as it clearly was.  Instead what we get are cliché movie moments; Turing standing in front of his machine shouting that his bosses will never understand the importance of it; papers being flung from desks in frustration.  These things may have happened but, in the context of a movie that doesn't entirely absorb you into its world, they ring false.

Cumberbatch is relatively typical of the performers here.  Like him, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode are perfectly fine, they're not doing anything wrong, as such, but from both there is a sense that they are working very hard and that we're watching actors acting.  The only moments of naturalism come from an engagement party sequence where we get to see the staff at Bletchley interacting as people – or as close to being a person as Turing is able to get. 

There seems to be an indecision at the heart of the film about what it wants to be; a biopic of Turing or a film about the cracking of Enigma.  This leads to Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore trying to have it both ways.  The problem is that the film doesn't come close to splitting its focus equally, so the treatment of Turing's school days and of the framing device involving the hideous injustice of his arrest for indecency and chemical castration is almost insultingly prosaic.  There are the ingredients here for two interesting films; one about Enigma and another about Turing's arrest, trial and conviction, but both of those films would need to dig much deeper than The Imitation Game.

Decently executed though it is, The Imitation Game is remarkable only in how utterly unremarkable it is.  It's not bad, but it's also no more than a couple of notches above a Sunday night drama on ITV.

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