'The Imitation Game'
Featuring a World War II setting, secret homosexuality, mysterious mental illness and a star hitting his peak, ‘The Imitation Game’ is a classic bit of Oscar bait filmmaking designed to profit off statues and nominations. The only boxes left unticked are a true story basis and a handsomely bland production. Wait… never mind. It has those too. Thankfully, it’s a decent little movie as well, so you needn’t feel helplessly manipulated. You’ll be manipulated just enough.
The film is about Alan Turing, the prickly and eccentric genius who broke the Nazi’s infamous Enigma code and helped win World War II. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the role, which is satisfying stunt-casting. (He broke out by playing the prickly and eccentric genius Sherlock Holmes, after all.) The story unfolds over three timelines. The most substantial takes place during WWII, in which Turing goes out of his way to help break Enigma because he’s “very good at puzzles.” He feuds with his boss (Charles Dance, playing a world class prick as only a Brit can), makes uneasy friends with an very un-Bond-ian MI6 officer (Mark Strong), forges uneasy relationships with his competitive code-breaking partners (mostly personified by Matthew Goode), designs one of the world’s first computers to break said code, and helps a talented woman (Keira Knightley) break into the code-breaking game and possibly even share a little love.
That last part is the only thing that doesn’t quite come true. You see, Turing was also a closeted homosexual in unenlightened times. The other two timelines explore his difficult school days and early stirrings for a classmate, as well as his arrest for homosexual activity long after the war. Eventually, he was forced into chemical castration, and never got the respect he deserved due to pesky classified government secrecy. Like I said, plenty of boxes get ticked.
The film works best when it’s a suspenseful wartime thriller with an oddball at the center. Here, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who made the underrated ‘Headhunters’) has a lot of skill with generating tension and mixing tones. The stakes are high enough for the plot to feel exciting despite the fact that the film is mostly made up of eggheads arguing in small rooms.
This is also where Turing’s character is at his most compelling. Clearly falling somewhere on the autism spectrum, he’s that special brand of genius that can be completely insufferable. Cumberbatch gamely dives into the eccentric and tragic role, mining it for humor one second and pathos the next without ever losing the thread. It’s another brilliant performance from an actor who specializes in brilliance, and he often single handedly carries the film on his shoulders. His sparring matches with Goode, Strong and Dance are consistently strong. Sure, the character’s relationship with Knightley can be a little creaky and overdone, but Knightley is so effortlessly charming and natural that she and Cumberbatch pull it off.
Had the movie exclusively been dedicated to this delightfully serio-comic wartime romp, it would have been a frothy delight hinged on a wonderful lead performance. Unfortunately, that’s not the entire movie.
While the triptych of timelines are executed well on a structural level, they add little more than melodrama to the movie overall. The childhood sequences needlessly simplify Turing’s psychological issues and shouldn’t have been included. The later material is more relevant given that it deals with Turing’s genuinely tragic post-war fate. However, there’s just not enough screen time to fully flesh that story out. It often comes across as rushed manipulation to ensure that the audience never forgets what a Serious and Important prestige movie they’re watching. It’s distracting and unfortunate, but thankfully far from a movie killer.
There might be some cheese to scrape off of your shoes after the credits roll, but thanks to Cumberbatch’s remarkable performance and all the joyously mounted wartime thrills and laughs, ‘The Imitation Game’ is an enjoyable blast of escapist Oscar bait that rarely feels like pandering. It’s a good time. Enjoy it before the hype overwhelms the charm.