Spoiler Warning: this article refers to historical details that also form major plot points in “The Imitation Game”.
The Imitation Game is a tough customer. It’s clumsily directed and badly written, yet features two outstanding elements: a great lead performance and a truly heartbreaking story spine.
The story – which is also the tragedy – of WWII Enigma-code breaking British mathematician Alan Turing is spectacular, as story and tragedy. In a pithy pitch: he saved his country, and then his country castrated him. Literally. The injustice of Turing’s treatment, both as a hero but even were he the most insignificant citizen of Britain, is outrageous – in that it fills one with rage. This is the story of one of the twentieth century’s most disgusting personal betrayals.
Before that, though, it is the story of the breaking of a code, and that story is poorly told here. Just as Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) routinely yells at people about his work, “You couldn’t possibly understand!”, so too the director and screenwriter, Morten Tyldum and Graham Moore, obviously figure we can’t either, so they don’t bother telling us how the code was cracked. Instead, they dolly up an awful lot of dramatically inert scenes – some embarrassingly attempting to be “screwball funny” – to pad the journey to the Eureka! moment, which, when it comes, is dreadfully trite (it happens in a pub, as a co-incidence, and it’s bad).
The stuff that comes after that is the most dramatically fascinating but is given truly surprisingly short shrift. Turing’s persecution for his sexuality was abominable – as were the laws of the time – and the stuff of great drama, but they’re practically thrown away here. We could have done with far fewer scenes of Turing and his fellow code-breakers at the pub (!) while plodding along in their laborious work, and much more Turing in later life. Where, for instance, is the story’s most dramatic scene – that of Turing being offered a choice of prison or castration? It’s not on screen, but relegated to a single line of expositional dialogue: a completely bizarre and dunderheaded choice.
Better are scenes of a young Turing (Alex Lather, doing a wicked boy Benedict) discovering young love at school. These sequences, feeling very Another Country, are the best written and directed in the film, and unfortunately show up how obvious, expositional and clunky the rest of the dialogue is, and how unenthusiastically it’s shot. There is no directorial stamp in evidence from Tyldum; the film looks and sounds like any semi-fine British TV drama, with visual effects that are unconvincing, a mise en scene that is too crisp and familiar, and supporting performances that are only about plot, and never about character.
What it has, is Cumberbatch, and he single-handedly raises the material to watchable. Despite being burdened with some horrible dialogue and an unsubtly written character, Cumberbatch, like all very good actors, finds his own way in, and at least presents the semblance of an inner life. It’s not a showy performance but it’s consistent and true – it has integrity, and he makes Turing, who was obviously a very strange man, believable. Unfortunately, this shows up how unbelievable the others appear. Good actors such as Charles Dance and Matthew Goode are left hanging by single-dimension roles (Dance is particularly awful, essentially playing Tywin Lannister in a Naval uniform) while Keira Knightley, although cute and sparky, has been directed as though she’s in a RomCom. Only Mark Strong, who now possesses the Nicest Voice In Movies, makes it out with any class as the MI6 honcho running the operation from the shadows (and who is introduced lurking in the shadows – it is that kind of movie).
It’s hard to make the workings of the scientific mind dramatic, but unfortunately The Imitation Game doesn’t even try. That’s a double shame because this will no doubt stand as the film about Turing for many years; in a year full of formally bold and invigorating films such as Boyhood, Birdman, Locke, Force Majeure, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under The Skin, the very conventional and indeed old-fashioned – and old hat – Imitation Game, at least as of this writing, is considered a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar. I shouldn’t be surprised.