Much like its subject, THE IMITATION GAME has spent many years in obscurity, an unloved script waiting for someone to take a chance on a story about the secretly gay genius who was instrumental in helping bring World War II to a speedier resolution. Now the project has finally come to fruition, you can see that it’s too subtle a beast to be considered mere awards bait, likely as it is to receive recognition.
With the escalation of WWII, the British government recruited a number of the country’s most talented codebreakers, the most brilliant of which was renowned mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who guides the team and facilitates their attempts to break the Nazis’ infamous and tactically devastating Enigma Code. Turing and his compatriots are in a race against time, not only to thwart the Nazis and prevent further Allies losses, but also to prove their perhaps foolhardy endeavor is a worthwhile use of valuable wartime resources. All the while, Turing hides a secret that may well come out one day and make all that he did for so many mean very little.
From his first appearance in the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cumberbatch was simply reprising his SHERLOCK role with a different haircut. All the reviews will be saying some variation of this. Like Holmes, Turing is standoffish, cold and calculating and wants you to know he’s the most intelligent man in the room by quite a margin. He’s also the second great character this year after Drax in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY to take everything hilariously literally. But as we spend time with him we come to realise he’s a rather fragile and soulful creature, and in many ways becomes far more endearing and empathetic than a certain Mr Holmes. Cumberbatch gives us his finest and most complex performance to date, affecting clipped vowels, nervy physicality and a convincing and never comical slight stammer.
The majority of the supporting cast are of the highest level. Knightley proudly and strikingly plays a woman implied to be one of the few people to be almost on par with Turing’s brilliance. You couldn’t get a pair who look more at home in a 1940s setting than Knightley and Matthew Goode, and both bring very different shades of British wartime stubbornness and resilience. Charles Dance and Mark Strong stand in for, respectively, the old guard of the Royal Navy who believe they’re pulling the strings of Turing’s experiments, and the newly-formed MI6, who are the ones actually in control. Dance has one of the best and funniest scenes in the film, Turing’s job interview at Bletchley Park which sees his Commander Denniston get increasingly furious at his interviewee’s plethora of personality quirks.
What really makes The Imitation Game is the script. It’s meticulously laid out, precise and economical, and moves as smoothly and cleanly as one of Turing’s machines. It really allows you to see WWII from another angle, and doesn’t shy from difficult moral questions and scenes of immense brutality despite depicting next-to-no actual battles. As we approach the conclusion of the wartime-set portion of the story, and our heroes’ victory seems assured, any cause for celebration is short-lived as we are presented with the ultimate Catch-22.
The film is still unexpectedly funny, with witty asides, memorable one-liners and even a pretty explicit oral sex joke that comes out of absolutely nowhere. It would be very easy to tell a story like this in a stony-faced, portent-heavy manner, but director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore strike a far more satisfying balance of tones. You of course get a final act full of pathos, but in contrast there’s a sequence early on that demonstrates perfect comic timing that involves Turing writing to Winston Churchill for support and receiving an unexpected response on the other side of an edit. I probably should have expected this bizarre mix of comedy and incredible darkness from a director who made escaping from an assassin by crawling through a river of excrement so funny in HEADHUNTERS.
The devil, as always, is in the details. From the costumes, hairstyles and the way people hold themselves to the locations, set dressing and even something as simple as children lining a street in colourful gasmasks (some bright spark really did apparently think painting them bright would make them less frightening for little ones to wear). Contemporary actors can tend to look out of place in a period setting, but pleasingly here everyone looks and sounds like they’ve literally stepped out of a time warp.
It’s not the perfect film though. There’s a really clumsy and unnecessary bit of exposition in an early scene (I haven’t seen a newspaper seller telling the audience what’s going on for a while) and there’s probably one too many characters who seem OK with Turing’s sexual preferences for the time period. There’s also some appalling accent work in the Manchester-set scenes, and the actors seem to have been instructed to do a generic GAME OF THRONES Northern rather than attempt anything close to a Lancashire dialect. For the first time I’m aware of, the usually great Rory Kinnear seems a bit of a weak link as the police officer in charge of the investigation into Turing’s past in the early 1950s.
We must also of course address the elephant in the room, the aspect of the film receiving the most criticism in the press. Does it give enough screentime and thought to Alan Turing being a gay man? It’s certainly debatable. His strongest relationship in the film is with a woman, Knightley’s Joan Clarke, after all, but it’s always a purely platonic relationship, and you often suspect Turing finds her presence more comforting because she’s the closest thing he has to an intellectual equal. It would have been nice to see another of Turing’s homosexual relationships in adulthood represented, or even a mere crush he developed at some point, as the only one the story acknowledges is the young Turing’s (Alex Lawther) infatuation with a boy at school. Without any qualifiers in adulthood other than Cumberbatch occasionally breathily whispering “I’m a homosexual”, it can come across that Alan forgets his sexual preferences scene-to-scene. We see a heterosexual romance begin to bloom after all, as Goode’s Hugh flirts with one of Joan’s friends (Tuppence Middleton) across a crowded pub whilst providing a running commentary of the etiquette of “making your move”. Perhaps this was, as many suspect, an element in the script that was toned down for the sake of the film’s worldwide marketability.
Despite one of the key aspects that made him who he was pushed to the background, and the odd minor stumble, The Imitation Game does Alan Turing’s achievements justice, if not quite the man himself. It also marks a really promising future for director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore. Not a lot more can be said about the brutality of WWII on the front line, at least post-SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but The Imitation Game emphasises how horrible those working behind the scenes for the war effort could be. Even if it doesn’t get the top awards in the new year (like they really matter) Cumberbatch’s layered performance and the quality of the writing should make this a film that will continue to resonate down the years. It’s as good an apology for what the British government did to Turing as he’s ever going to get, and yes, that includes Queen Elizabeth’s insultingly belated “we’re sorry”. SSP