World War II dramas win awards. Biopics win awards. Unhappy endings win awards. Films released by the Weinstein Company win awards. Films with Benedict Cumberbatch in them get nominations, and maybe the occasional award for the people around him. For now. So why not toss all those ingredients into a moviemaking mixer and watch the resulting casserole win the big awards bake-off?
Thus did my annual Oscarquest continue with The Imitation Game, in which The Cumberbatch takes a break from playing licensed characters to try out a historical figure instead, as he did in The Fifth Estate except farther from the present and without changing hair color this time. If this pays off and kicks off a lifetime of nonstop peer recognition, maybe someday he’ll have half as many nominations as Meryl Streep does. The internet can dream!
Short version for the unfamiliar: The beloved Tumblr icon is wizardly British mathematician Alan Turing, whose breakthroughs in cryptographic technology helped the Allies crack Nazi codes, divine new Axis intel, and eventually facilitate WWII victory from the safety of the home front. Meanwhile behind the scenes, things fell apart. Later after the war, Turing was prosecuted for homosexual activities that were illegal at the time, voluntarily subjected himself to brain-crippling chemical treatments in lieu of time behind bars, and a year after sentencing committed suicide.
Between his MI6 recruitment and his end-days, there came lots of scenes of pacing back and forth, thinking aloud, crunching numbers, fastening machine parts together, alienating colleagues, upsetting superiors, saving the day anyway, and enduring the occasional emotional trauma. While his comrades each have one quirk to call their own, Turing himself is depicted along the dysfunctional-personality Best Picture spectrum somewhere between A Beautiful Mind and Rain Man, with a dash of Milk for true-life tragic measure.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The British government, under the officially nonexistent auspices of MI6, assembled a crew that also included Matthew Goode (Ozymandias from Watchmen) as the straight-laced angry one, Allen Leech (Branson from Downton Abbey) as the suspiciously friendly one, Keira Knightley as the one with any box office pull and Oscar nomination experience, and Charles Dance (Alien3, Last Action Hero) as the cranky old man in charge who’s threatening to pull the plug on the entire operation if this motley crew of loose cannons doesn’t toe the line and get results for Queen and Country and whatnot.
Lurking in the background, Mark Strong (Stardust, Low Winter Sun, the underused Sinestro in Green Lantern) is the MI6 liaison in charge of sitting in corners, letting silences speak volumes, and secretly running everything. Meanwhile in the mid-’50s framing sequence, Turing in custody faces off against police officer Rory Kinnear, who sported his own MI6 credentials as Chief of Staff Tanner in the last two Daniel Craig/James Bond films.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Beyond the historical setting and personalities, The Imitation Game is all about secrets, lies, facades, and double-talk. Forced to sift through it all is a painfully earnest Turing, who as a young grad student can’t even figure out figurative language, metaphors, or irony. He’s like the a scrawny, pasty, jittery alter-ego of Drax the Destroyer. Over the course of the film, Turing slowly figures out how not to say everything he’s thinking, how to fool some of the people some of the time, and how to sit on the largest secrets of all even if it means innocent lives lost. In the ten-years-later scenes, Turing has clearly learned his lesson and even added the formerly alien concept of sarcasm to his repertoire.
The TL;DR version of it all: Everybody lies. Not that this is original, but to a certain extent it’s approached from a creative angle that shows progression if you mind Cumberbatch’s dependably skillful performance while ignoring as many of his studious tics as you can.
Knightley’s status as a British woman and therefore a second-class worker is also a key element. Before Turing secures a place for her on the team, she has to face a long parade of dumbfounded citizens — mostly men, but also her own parents — sputtering and thinking, “She can’t possibly be doing the hard maths! She’s a GIRL!” Turing may have his defects, but they ostensibly didn’t include institutionalized sexism or ignoring any rivaling geniuses.
Nitpicking? Of all the articles I’ve seen condemning the movie’s historical inaccuracies, a piece published last week over at The Guardian is the most thorough and outraged I’ve seen so far. History isn’t my strongest skill set anyway, so I wasn’t planning any commentary of that nature even before I came across theirs. Most of what I know of Turing’s vital contributions was gleaned from reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and that’s been quite a while.
That being said: this may be the least WWII-ish film about WWII ever. The focus is squarely on tech geeks being recruited, instructed, bullied, set loose in an office, learning to get along, and stumbling across the answer in the most John Forbes Nash-ian way possible. Scenes from the war front, the London bombings, and anything involving guns or explosives might’ve numbered, I dunno, three at best, not including vintage stock footage. There’s a point in the third act where we’re supposed to be flattened by the enormity of the casualties because a few have close ties to Team Turing, but none of them have faces or personalities. The team performs their reactions with sufficient gravitas, but the attempt to muster up sympathy for NPCs dying offscreen didn’t resonate.
It doesn’t help that the narrative structure is straight out of the Oscar handbook. Misfits gathered; the work is hard; everything goes wrong; everyone unites; inspiration strikes from nowhere; the day is saved. Even before Cumberbatch had to be held back by soldiers while shouting, “MY! MACHINE! WILL! WORK!” I was already sketching out the conclusions in my head. It’s a formula that can be rewarding to experience each time if the movie offers enough supplemental qualities to distract from all the familiar bits. If.
Least favorite part: in the search t learn which of the teammates is a mole, once the revelation comes, it happens through such a clumsy stroke of luck that it’s a miracle the traitor remained undiscovered for more than ten minutes, based on what was discussed about their methods in previous scenes. Sherlock’s services surely weren’t needed to track down this culprit.
So did I like it or not? If you’ve never seen a historical drama and haven’t familiarized yourself with all the motions, The Imitation Game should give you a baseline foundation and possibly foster interest in what else there is to know about Turing’s life and struggles. If you’ve seen a lot of movies like this, then here’s another for your collection, I suppose. If nothing else it was sufficient excuse to showcase another compelling score by Alexandre Desplat, a proper companion piece for his soundtrack to Atonement, which also costarred Keira Knightley and WWII in that order.
The revolutionary machines that would beget today’s amazing world of computers are curious to behold in their primordial states, as are Mark Strong whenever his deeper motives urge him to speak, Cumberbatch because he’s dependable like that, and Knightley as the most grounded one who has the thankless task of keeping all the men in line for as long as she can before societal customs sunder all their bonds. Just the same, her story as well as Turing’s might contain facets to be learned from, and Turing’s final days are tough to watch as a harsh crime committed against a man’s very intellect, but I’m not sure the valiant art of covert-ops pencil-pushing truly came alive here.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Imitation Game end credits. Things I noticed instead:
* Special thanks to fellow composer Clint Mansell
* A credit for Knightley’s security detail
* Someone in the props department named Josh Hartnett. Probably not the famous one, but that’d sure be interesting if he were.