Benedict Cumberbatch gives a career-defining performance in this poignant biographical drama.
Before I even knew what this movie was about, I did a little research on the man it was based on – Alan Turing. Turns out that he was one of the greatest heroes of World War II, an exceptional genius where his conviction of being a homosexual unfortunately overshadowed his vital contributions in turning the tide against Nazi Germany. He was also a highly influential figure in the development of what was to become the modern computer. Based on Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: The Enigma biography, it is probably the most British film to come out this year. The Imitation Game is a fascinating, intelligent and compelling tale that celebrates an otherwise tragic figure, a man who has saved millions of lives without ever having to shoot a gun.
Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst, is hired by the British government to crack the seemingly-impossible Enigma code designed by Nazi Germany. Under the command of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and MI6 chief Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), Turing and a team of scholars – consisting of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) – race against time to win WWII by building a machine that can decipher many encryptions faster than any human. The flick jumps to different timelines of Turing’s life, from his solitary teenage years to his conviction for gross indecency in post-war.
Directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum and written by American Graham Moore, this film feels like an outsider’s perspective to a predominantly English event. Of course, the movie didn’t go too diverse, evident by its all-star British cast and appealing 1940s England aesthetic. The movie is more focused on how Turing cracked the code rather than if he actually did, and the code-breaking itself was exciting and riveting through Turing and his team’s eureka moments. Accompanying the espionage tale is the characters’ challenging archaic laws and social expectations that existed then, from it being illegal to be gay to the discrimination of women. It could’ve added more resonance to Turing’s tragedy if they touched upon his personal struggles, especially the issues of his sexual orientation, a lot more. Even short, they were enough of these scenes to summarise what Turing had been through and what drove him to make the machine that helped saved many lives.
There is poignancy but the script opts for a more uplifting tone with Turing, portraying him as an unintentionally funny outcast with little to no social skills, and the most humorous lines obviously come from him. The director has stated that he intended to show off Turing’s contributions to the war and how important his work was, and that he shouldn’t be remembered by how the government treated him in his later life. One of the movie’s major downsides is its pacing. It’s steady to the point where it feels like a line with no ups or downs which made it feel slow and uninteresting at certain points. The slightly non-chronological order of the narrative isn’t confusing as they tell us upfront what year the scene is in, but the transitions could have been better as some of them felt too sudden. It also takes liberties with its dramatic moments, which is quite a norm when it comes to biographical films, but there are some that felt completely forced and unnecessary, particularly when a vital moment negatively affects one of the members of Turing’s team. Emotional, yes, but it wasn’t needed.
Already experienced with playing intelligent characters, Cumberbatch felt absolute in his role as Turing, so much so that his portrayal comes close to an allusion of his Sherlock rendition – ridiculously smart yet socially inept. Nevertheless, he plays Turing with an awkward kind of charm and he is convincing in terms of his determination to breaking the code and sureness of the machine he is building. He doesn’t come off as the most likable person, evident by how amusingly frustrated the other personalities are around him, but Cumberbatch’s vulnerable performance made him extremely identifiable. The all-British cast is also well-picked and competently acted, especially from the always imposing Dance and conniving Strong. Knightley’s character, while solidly performed and having good chemistry with Cumberbatch, was the least interesting since she was quite underutilised in terms of her overall involvement with cracking the enigma. Nevertheless, it’s always fun seeing Knightley playing her usual spunky female characters.
While it could’ve ended up as a bog-standard biopic, the stellar British cast, emotional story and exciting war-time espionage made The Imitation Games as entertaining as it is a fascinating time capsule of history. It would have benefited in having a bit more diversity with its storytelling, as well as further exploring Turing’s tragedy but Cumberbatch’s sleuth performance, surprisingly intense situations, retro aesthetics, and uplifting tone kept it from being a bore. It wouldn’t satisfy one with the expectation of a full-on thriller, but it is worth it just to see an influential yet unsung figure get the recognition he truly deserves.