Stirring, old-fashioned, nicely textured, and triumphantly tragic, The Imitation Game is a rich production that’s disappointing as biography, a film about a human calculator which feels a bit too calculated. There’s an algorithm for making an Oscar-ready prestige picture – and The Imitation Game follows it obsessively. Set your coordinates for the Academy Awards.
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, 12 Years a Slave) – British mathematician, crytoanalyst, logician, pioneering computer scientist – is hired and brought to Bletchley Park, Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School, during World War II. He and a motley group of scholars, mathematicians, linguists, chess champions, and intelligence officers are given an impossible task: cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, responsible for 3,000 encrypted messages a day. The stakes? Within minutes of meeting Mark Strong’s Major General Stewart Menzies, Turing’s informed that Enigma has killed “three, while we’ve been having this conversation.”
Ringing in the ears like A Beautiful Mind dashed with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and sharing some of the same cast), it’s a remarkable narrative, with the potential to communicate agonizing historical ironies. Turing may have been the first person to use the phrase “digital computer,” by which he meant a machine that could be programmed to draw conclusions from its calculations about what calculations to do next. He was the first hacker, and he hacked Hitler.
Anchored by a storming, sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance, The Imitation Game seems to have a lot going for it. Cumberbatch bristles with brilliance and dominates the proceedings, combining his modulated and naturalistic array of eccentricities and knack for simultaneously projecting physical oddness and attractiveness to create an credible portrait of genius at work. Tweaked with captivating strangeness, it’s an impressively rounded portrayal of a tortured man and a beautiful mind, someone prickly, aggressive, awkward, kind, and confident. In holding back so much of the time, he makes his few outward displays of emotion far more impactful.
Unfortunately, director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) streamlines a fascinating true story into functional prestige filmmaking, serving up Oscar bait in code. It’s too efficient, too calculated to take its audience beyond Turing’s life as conveyer belt, and the script by Graham Moore is bludgeonly repetitive. The writing keeps eating away at the narrative’s clarity – and integrity. The romance of patriotism and pain, depicted here in lush greens and velvety blues, makes The Imitation Game pleasurable enough to render it a vindication of the formula, but it lacks nerve, diminishes historical events, and fumbles in the dark.
There’s a sense Tyldum is trying to shield viewers from the story’s most difficult parts – his film skirts or sugarcoats the horrors of war, the technical complexity of Turing’s solution, the dreadful conditions of Turing’s fate. Yet by doing so, Tyldum has robbed The Imitation Game of emotional depth. Tyldum’s conventional approach doesn’t do justice to his tragically unconventional hero. Rather than a complex human portrait, it’s an assemblage of triumphs, tragedies, and tics. It’s almost surprising that it entirely timorous when it comes to Turing’s private life, refusing to allow Cumberbatch to wrestle with the torment of Turing’s sexuality or to penetrate the man’s carnality.
Turing’s bright light may have burned out too soon, but you’ll be deciphering Cumberbatch’s work long after you’ve left the theatre. He merits more – much more – but his Sherlockian talent dominates among the indecent conservatism. And as middlebrow, medium-impact melodrama goes, you could do worse – much worse.