I found The Imitation Game to be a very challenging film, and not for the reasons you would expect.
The Imitation Game is a marvelous film at the basic levels. The performances are amazing, the direction is great, and the construction of the film as a whole is wonderful.
But at the same time, there is something about the work that felt wrong. I think that the problem with The Imitation Game was that it tried to do too much in too short a run time. Alan Turing is a man whose life could fill an entire BBC miniseries. Of course, there are many people who fit that description. But it feels hollow to insist that such people fit their life stories into a feature length biopic.
The Imitation Game is mostly about Alan Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) wartime activities. Turing was the man who figured out how to crack the Nazis’ Enigma device using a sophisticated machine that could break their codes. In doing so, he invented the modern computer. He was also a gay man at the time when Great Britain felt such activities were criminal. Therefore, instead of being praised, Turing ended up committing suicide after a British court finds him guilty of indecency for paying a male prostitute for sex.
Does it sound like I’m describing two different works? You’re not wrong. The Imitation Game feels too fragmented to really have a real impact.
It’s not impossible to mold a film with multiple disparate themes into a successful work. I don’t blame director Morten Tyldum for being unsuccessful. He is obviously a talented man for what he gets right about The Imitation Game. The performances of Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley both deserve Oscar nominations. The film also works as a great political thriller, featuring people who were desperate to accomplish an impossible task.
Cumberbatch has a talent for playing characters like Turing. He has been widely praised for his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and turned into a sort of geek sex symbol. But whereas Holmes is always the best man in the room, Turing reveals just how lonely such a man would really be. Cumberbatch captures this element well. At times, he can almost barely speak as he tries to express his thoughts. In his opening scene, Cumberbatch acts rather Holmesian as he explains to a naval commander that he doesn’t want to work for the government. It’s a great scene, and its also great to see Turing learn that his attitude will not get him far as he alienates those he works with.
And this brings me to my first criticism – the relationship between Turing and the rest of his team is not handled very well. Stop me if you’ve heard this before – the characters hate the protagonist but grow to like him after a fleeting gesture that would really only be the first step in real life. Yep, that’s exactly what The Imitation Game does. In this case, Turing gives everyone an apple and tells a bad joke.
I realize it’s difficult to cover many years of someone’s in a single film, but other filmmakers have been more successful than this. It’s as though the filmmakers got ahead of themselves and decided that the story of Turing would be enough and encourage us to overlook the film’s faults. And as the film went on, it became more pronounced.
Still, the rest of the WWII scenes are great. The team races against time to crack the Enigma machine and there is a moral question about how they should use this technology to save lives. I won’t spoil it, but it does present the sort of moral quandary that world leaders at the time did face – quandaries that undoubtedly haunted them for the rest of their lives. These are great scenes, as Turing faces his machine and begs it to work before the commander shuts everything down. He also has to face the fact there is a Soviet spy on his team. This is an amazing war thriller that draws audiences in to the plight of Turing and his team.
But whenever I was sucked in, I found the film pushing me out through superfluous details. I haven’t even covered Kiera Knightley’s character, Joan Clarke. Clarke is a brilliant mathematician whose parents want her to find a good husband. It’s a great performance and a great character. Knightley is completely natural in her role. She comes off as smart but never arrogant. She is the perfect foil for Turing, and it’s easy to see why they could admire each other.
But at the same time, Clarke is used to illustrate the plight of women who wanted to be professional in a world that viewed them as less than human. This is a legitimate topic for a film, but it makes the film feel stretched even thinner. How can anyone focus on that story while the Nazis are killing the British? Considering the stakes, it prevents my mind from understanding the war and what Turing and Clarke hoped to accomplish.
What also stretches the film thin is the final act about Turing’s arrest for his homosexual activities. Yes, the real Turing was a gay man and yes, his fate (a judge sentenced him to be chemically castrated to remove his gay urges) is a terrible one. But we never really see that side of Turing as an adult. There are flashbacks to his schooldays where falls in love with a boy named Christopher. Indeed, he names his computer after his love. But that’s as far as it goes thematically. It might seem minor, but the film makes a point at the end of citing the number of gay British men who were forced to undergo the sametreatment as Turing.
Films are about showing, not telling. We are supposed to arrive at our own emotional conclusions. They cannot just cite material and expect people to have the same feelings. As I said, I completely agree with the film’s conclusion that the treatment of homosexuals at the time was inhumane and barbaric. That doesn’t mean i agree with the way the film handles it. Why not show us more of Turing’s partners and show the story of how he was forced to keep it a secret from his colleagues? Why not show the strain such secrecy places on his relationships? That would have been far more effective than what the film delivers.
I admire films that try to address multiple themes. Some films do so very well. But The Imitation Game was the first time I ever really felt distracted by a film trying to do too much in its run time. The film was simply trying to do far too much. Turing was a man who’s story needed to be told and when the film focuses on the creation of his machine and how it won WWII, it soars. Everything else just feels unnecessary.