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Categories: Movie Reviews

The Imitation Game is up for eight Oscars this year, and could even be a heavy contender for Best Picture. Cameron Johnson respects the movie, but doesn’t think the hype is completely justified.

(Spoilers ahead)

The first shot of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, nominated for 8 Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards, shows Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) sitting inside a police containment room, ready to converse with Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), who’s interrogating him on charges of homosexuality. It’s the start of one of the film’s three parallel story lines, each detailing a phase in Turing’s tumultuous and important life. For better or for worse, it’s also the start of a competent but disappointingly unfocused film that covers every base without ever scoring a home run. 

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays scientist and codebreaker Alan Turing with undeniable grace, losing himself in a character who he gives a curious mix of his own interpretation of Sherlock and Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. Constantly giving off a disinterested half-frown and replying to every question and concern with nonchalance and snark, he presents Turing as a man who fully knows the extent of his genius, and how useful his talents will be to his superiors in the short term and to society in the long run. 

While I wouldn’t consider it an Oscar-worthy performance given this year’s intense competition, Cumberbatch’s turn as Turing is certainly an excellent one, grounding a movie that often veers too far from Turing’s focus to really be great in any of its narrative points or themes. He certainly makes us know how great – and human – Turing was as a person, and as a member of society. It was he, of course, who led the mission at Bletchley to crack the Nazi Enigma code, effectively “winning the war”. Most importantly of all, he invented the machine which would be the foundation of modern computing, and introduced the titular “Imitation Game”, a way to question the thinking capability of machines. 

And boy is Turing’s computer a masterpiece. The machine, full of rotating cylinders and drenched in red wires, is one of the greatest recent wonders in production design, fully earning the film its Oscar nomination in said category. Designer Maria Djurkovic has admitted that the team took a few artistic liberties to make the machine more cinematic, but it was well worth it, elevating the machine to one of the film’s characters in its own right. It’s fitting, given the fact that Turing named the computer after a childhood friend of his, Christopher, who he lost to tuberculosis while he was in boarding school. 

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Turing’s relationship with Christopher makes up the second of the film’s three parallel stories, with Turing and team’s attempts to break Enigma naturally being the third and most substantial one. Because of this awkward juxtaposition, Turing’s beautiful machine is never really given its time to shine – it sits proudly in shots without controlling them like it controls Turing’s passions and decisions (he would eventually choose chemical castration over jail time to continue working on his machine). Instead, we’re given three uneven stories, each interesting but only one – the thriller about cracking the code – given enough time to develop and weave its way into the thematic spirit of the film.

In fact, I’d argue that the flashbacks to Turing’s relationship with Christopher, which consist of Christopher saving Turing from some bullies, passing him notes in class, watching him solve a few puzzles together, and exchanging cheesy (but not uninspiring) life lessons with him, feel tacked-on, an afterthought added to make the film’s climactic ending, when Alan reveals his government-mandated castration to friend Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), feel as if it’s earned its punch. It doesn’t really do its job as well as it could have, leaving us wanting more – more passion, more emotion, more energy. 

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That said, the film isn’t devoid of energy completely; the central plot of the film, following Turing and a group of linguists and crossword enthusiasts in their attempt to crack coded Nazi messages, is often enthralling, even if Cumberbatch and Knightley are the only actors whose characters aren’t reduced to archetypes or plot devices. Editor William Goldberg gives the film a similar pace to his phenomenal work on Argo, at least when he can. It’s in the “eureka!” moments – regardless of if they actually happened as excitingly in real life – that the film really draws our attention, allowing the rhythm of the music, editing and cast distract us from the unfocused script and conventional cinematography. 

The character archetypes, too, are well-done ones, with Charles Dance playing Turing’s equally arrogant boss, a man unwilling to accept Turing’s leadership until Churchill intervenes, and Allen Leech playing a codebreaker who Turing trusts with his secret of homosexuality. Matthew Beard and Matthew Goode are also excellent in their roles as two other codebreakers, though their roles, despite a few emotional scenes, are important to the film only because their characters really existed. 

For me it’s Keira Knightley who gives the film’s best performance as Joan Clarke, using a posh accent that’s believable enough to work on a serious level yet just querky enough to provide some entertainment value to otherwise obligatory scenes. Clarke falls in love with Alan in a platonic way, accepting his marriage proposal so she can stay in Bletchley despite her parents’ disapproval of her working and her doubts about Turing’s sexuality; the marriage, of course, never happens. 

In the scene when Turing reveals to Clarke his mandated chemical castration, Knightley delivers the words “oh my God” better than I’ve ever seen any actor deliver them, at once with tones of disgust, regret, surprise and dark humor. It’s one of many small moments in the film in which Knightley shows at once her talents for comedy and drama, and earns her Supporting Actress nomination. 

Throughout the film the Norwegian Morten Tyldum, who is here directing in English for the first time, directs competently, but lacks the precision and control over the subject material to really earn his Best Director nomination. He basically makes the film a beefed-up BBC history movie, going over major events without ever really getting deep into his characters’ psyches. 

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In many places the actors make up for the lack of focus, but sometimes it’s blatantly obvious that some scenes are included solely because they have to be, or to cover up a hole in thematic development. Such is the case with obligatory stock footage of the war, scenes of people living underground to avoid the bombings, and the hackneyed shots of children boarding trains to leave their families for the countryside. I don’t want to de-emphasize the importance of such events, or trivialize their emotional impact, but rather than seeing pretty much the same shots we see in every other British World War II film, I’d rather have gotten more character development. Tell us something we don’t know!

The Imitation Game isn’t by any means a bad film. Every facet of the production is solid, and every performance is committed. It thoroughly deserves its Oscar nominations for editing, music, and production design, though I’m glad it wasn’t given a nod for cinematography, because it falls into the Eastwood-esque trap of unnecessary pans and zooms, which in many places are more unsettling than thrilling. It’s also quite a beige film, fitting given the times, I suppose, but never really visually exciting. 

I wouldn’t have nominated it for Best Director or Picture myself, but I see why the Academy went for it. It’s produced by the Weinstein company, it’s the biggest British drama of 2014, and it’s based on an infinitely interesting real-life story. That said, everything it did well, The Theory of Everything did better, and with a more precise approached, focusing solely on the relationships as opposed to trying to cover everything. 

That said, The Imitation Game is a film everyone should see if for the performances and production values alone. It handles its material well enough to be crowd-pleasing, and to be educational to those who don’t know Turing’s story, or how far we’ve come – even if it’s not far enough – on the fronts of LGBT rights and the rights of women. But I don’t see me looking back on 2014 twenty years from now and saying, “yeah, that was the year The Imitation Game came out”. 

By Editor Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Feb 2, 2015

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