Friday, January 16, 2015

The Imitation Game

Thoughtful viewers may well be of two minds about The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum’s film of the life of British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). Tyldum and writer Graham Moore (working from a book by Andrew Hodges) have dramatized what is important about Turing - his code breaking activities for England during World War II - in a conventional manner, complete with flashbacks to childhood and end titles that put his achievements in perspective. Turing is hired to join a team working to break the German “Enigma” code, a thought to be unbreakable cipher which prevented the Allies from anticipating German movements. Through a combination of ability and arrogance Turing is soon in charge of the team, much to the displeasure of his commanding officer (Charles Dance) and colleague (Matthew Goode). An effort to bring in new staff introduces Joan Clarke (a spiky Keira Knightley), who is chafing at being limited by her gender and who soon becomes Turing’s chief confidant.

If you are intrigued by the previous paragraph and you don’t know Turing’s story then you may want to stop reading. The Imitation Game works well enough as a story of the War years thanks mostly to Benedict Cumberbatch, who finds a way to make palpable the sense that Turing is overwhelmed by the speed of his thoughts even as he struggles to relate to those around him. It’s a carefully worked out performance and one that reveals new sides of Cumberbatch’s talent. The more delicate task is to tell the rest of Turing’s life. The World War II story is framed by Turing’s 1950’s prosecution for “indecency”, or in other words for his being a homosexual. The word “gay” is never used in The Imitation Game, and the best choice that that makers of The Imitation Game is the one to not make Turing a precursor of the self-aware, politically conscious gay characters we know today. (Alan Turing killed himself in 1954 and homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain until the late 1960’s.)  Turing’s sexuality (made public after a botched robbery at his house) is something he half understands and deeply fears, and it is the juxtaposition of Turing’s intellect with his fundamental needs that gives the film its poignancy.

The Imitation Game is a film about othering. As a child young Alan (the very good Alex Lawther) is an outcast due to his intelligence and his feelings for a classmate (Jack Bannon). As an adult Alan has trouble connecting with his fellow code breakers. Joan is set apart because no one believes a woman can be an elite mathematician, and it’s only through her bond with Alan that she finds a way in. A plainly stated message of the film is that unlikely people can do great things, but there is also an implicit point made about the folly of the ways we choose to set people apart from each other. The fact that The Imitation Game received multiple Oscar nominations is no surprise. There is plenty of talent here and a prestige year-end release courtesy of The Weinstein Company,  but the film is also animated by an urgency about its subject that biographical films like this often lack. A better film might be made about Alan Turing the scientist, but it is hard to imagine a more honorable one about Alan Turing the man.

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