Alan Turing was an extraordinary figure, whose importance to the world is only now being fully recognised. This was a man who, more than any other single individual, helped win the Allies World War II, and whose work on mechanical logic engines led to modern computing as we know it. The Imitation Game has a lot to live up to if it is going to do this man justice, and give him the cinematic portrayal that his contributions deserve. Starting after the war with an investigation into a burglary at his home, the film jumps backwards to tell the story of his time during the war, and back again to his youth in an upper-class boarding school. Turing was one of a handful of mathematicians, linguists and scientists tasked with the unenviable job of breaking the Nazi Enigma code, a seemingly indecipherable machine based encryption that allowed the German army to position their troops, coordinate their attacks, and move their supply chains, without interference from Allied forces. Resetting each night at midnight these men would have less than 24 hours to break the code, before their work reset to zero and they had to start again. The film seeks to tell this story, while simultaneously allowing us an incite into the mind and life of a genius.
For Benedict Cumberbatch this performance as Turing is as fine as the most well oiled of machines. His Turing is one of real flaws, real quirks, and real emotion. The film flows through him and he constructs a believable and complex character, portraying Turing’s inner torment with utter conviction. Keira Knightley is back in a period piece, but manages to offer a different performance from her usual buttoned up roles with a more relaxed and warm portrayal. Joan is the foil for Turing, a tad cliched as a written character, but elevated by Knightley’s subtle touch. Matthew Goode is great as the upper-class cad, a handsome, well-spoken, self-confident genius who is simultaneously truck by envy and admiration by Turing. Both he and Knightley give a platform for Cumberbatch to shine. Charles Dance convincing portrays the stereotypical starch collared British Naval Commander, while Mark Strong is perfectly cast as the shadowy MI6 agent Stewart Menzies. Elsewhere both Allen Leech and Matthew Beard are both good in smaller roles, with each getting a scene with Cumberbatch in which they manage to hold their own. Beard’s in particular is heart-breaking. Rory Kinnear and Steven Waddington are similarly asked to do little, but being fine actors do it well. Kinnear’s interactions with Cumberbatch frame the film and help film from being overtly cliched.
One of the criticisms that is levelled at The Imitation Game, and one that is absolutely fair, is that is the very definition of an Oscar baiting movie. Every decision, from the framing device, to the flashback sequences, to the coda, is meticulously designed to fit into how the Academy like to see their biopics. That being said structure is not necessarily a bad thing, and here Morten Tyldum uses the structure to tell a worthy and interesting story. Yes it is paint by numbers, but that does allow the acting to come to the fore. The film feels very much of its time, with the production design, costumes, and cinematography all invoking the era of the Blitz. What does not work as well is the needless computer generated scenes from the war. These are of such poor quality as to distract from the period cocoon that envelopes the audience, and serve little narrative purpose. There is no audience member who goes into this film that is unaware of what is at stake for the men and women desperately trying to crack the code. Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine, if unmemorable score, with the film utilising its piano and strings to echo Turing’s anxiety and unease.
Overall The Imitation Game is uses a familiar structure to tell an engaging story, and while the filmmaking on display is nothing to write home about the acting is of the highest quality. The story of Turing deserves an extraordinary film, what it got was a very mechanical one with an extraordinary lead.