The Imitation Game is about two fascinating subjects, either one of which could have made for a great movie. There are even moments when we believe the two will successfully merge together as a single, unified story. But as well made and performed as The Imitation Game often is, it doesn't quite reach its full potential of being both a character study and a historical thriller. When it dedicates time to one, the other loses steam, and so the collective narrative seems to be at odds with itself and misses out on finding a working balance.
Movie Review: The Imitation Game
By Matthew Huntley
January 5, 2015
The character the film studies is Alan Turing, the brilliant English mathematician whom many credit with designing the world's first digital brain, a.k.a. computer. Focused, aloof and incredibly intelligent, Alan, as the film paints him, was mostly an outsider who routinely upset his peers, probably because Alan was smarter than them and wasn’t afraid to show it. But what he lacked in social skills he made up with reasoning and determination, qualities that, we all know, don’t always gain you friends or admirers.
Alan’s cohorts constantly viewed him as a monster, and as bright and rational as he was, there were times when he saw himself in the same light. Alan respects himself as a mathematician but hardly likes himself as a man. Because he was a homosexual, there was always a cloud of shame looming over his head, which eventually led to his demise. The Imitation Game allows us to see that Alan was a difficult yet beautiful individual and a very troubled soul, and as much as the film tell us about him, it doesn’t tell us enough. It gives us snippets from his adolescence and we see how we was tortured by his classmates until he bonded with another young man with whom he eventually fell in love, but these scenes feel less like natural instances of character development and more like plot devices meant to tie in with the modern story.
The modern story is where the thriller aspect of The Imitation Game comes into play. It takes place in Manchester, England in 1951, when Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) has just been robbed. Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) enters the Cambridge Professor’s flat, which resembles a mad scientist's laboratory, and Alan warns the gumshoe not to breathe in too heavily because of the airborne chemicals. Then, with snide abrasion, he tells the detective to simply find the chap who broke in and promptly leave him alone. Nock feels insulted and gets the sneaking suspicion Alan is hiding something. Indeed he is, which leads to Alan’s arrest for indecency and his sitting in a murky, drab debriefing room in a police station, where he asks his interrogator to pay attention as he tells his full story.
In 1939, shortly after Britain officially confirmed she was at war with Nazi Germany, Alan applies for a secret government position at Bletchley Park under Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), who almost instantly dislikes him for his smug, irreverent attitude. Denniston is about to throw him out of his office until Alan reveals he knows about Enigma, the highly advanced encryption machine designed by the Germans to relay messages to its military. If the British can decrypt these messages, they believe they can win the war.
But it’s not going to be easy. Alan, along with Britain's other top luminaries - Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), none of whom Alan is particularly fond to work with (the feeling is mutual) - explain to Denniston and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), the Chief of MI6 Officer overseeing the operation, the permutations of Germany’s messages are too vast for any human to calculate (the number of possibilities are “159, followed by 18 0s”). Plus, the Germans change Enigma’s settings every 18 hours, which gives the cryptography team a very limited window before the latest messages are void and they must start from scratch.
So Alan takes it upon himself to design a machine to do the heavy lifting. He names it Christopher (for reasons I’ll let you discover), which takes the messages as input and attempts to reveal what they say at a much faster rate than the human brain. Of course, this is just the long and short of Alan’s device and the team’s “war against the clock” (Menzies tells them four British soldiers will die every minute they haven’t decoded Germany’s messages), but the film works to recount the evolution of their enormous undertaking, including the ensuing politics, conspiracies and egos. The science and ramifications of Christopher are inherently intriguing and, just like Alan, we wish the film taught us more about them.
Like I mentioned, this is fascinating subject matter with a fascinating individual at the center of it. Why, then, doesn’t The Imitation Game fully work as a nail-biting thriller and/or involving character drama? Perhaps that’s ultimately an enigma in and of itself, because on paper, these qualities should make for a rich, well-rounded story, but it somehow doesn’t turn out that way. There’s a lot to admire about the film, including Cumberbatch’s immersive performance, and I’m grateful to Graham Moore for his screenplay, based on Andrew Hodges book, Alan Turing: The Enigma, and to director Morten Tyldum for realizing it, but it somehow feels incomplete.
When the story goes back and forth between Alan's personal and professional lives, it loses momentum and has to constantly regain traction. It’s interesting, because just like the cryptography team has to start from scratch every 18 hours, our interest in the film has to start from scratch every time it switches genres. The reason for this, I think, is the movie tries to fit too much story into too little time and ends up compromising itself as a whole in the process, making Alan’s individual story and the thriller plot feel overly standard when they are anything but. For some reason, it wants to hurry things along, and so the screenplay reverts to obligatory, contrived scenes, which, I’m afraid, are rather easy to spot.
Consider the scene when we first meet Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only woman on Alan’s team. Guarded and prudish, Joan applies for the position after she solves a crossword puzzle Alan places in the paper. She shows up late to the application process but manages to finish the next phase of the test first, which immediately tells us Joan is special. Couldn’t the movie have found a less flagrant way to tell us this? Plus, it too often underscores the fact that she’s a woman doing a man’s job, at least at the time. In any case, Joan and Alan’s relationship grows into something heartfelt and complicated, to be sure, but because of the limited screen time, I never got the sense I really knew how these two really felt about each other.
The other relationship the film merely Cliff Notes is the one between Alan and his childhood friend. We know Alan is in love with him, but we only get the major bullets as to why, and the film wants us to believe Alan’s interest in cryptography stems from a single exchange of dialogue they have. It’s not that this scene, or any scene, felt dishonest, but rather glossed over so it could quickly tie in with the present story. I was hoping the film’s character interactions would come across as more natural and organic and not so plot-driven.
I have a feeling most viewers will disagree with me on my assessment of The Imitation Game, and they’ll find plenty of emotional and though-provoking substance to take away from it. But to me, the content is more engaging than the execution. I can see why this is the case, but my reaction is also a bit of a mystery considering how much the film has going for it, which I suppose is appropriate given the story but also a disappointment.