'The Imitation Game' Is Equally About Wartime and Emotional Codes

This biopic both reminds the world of Alan Turing’s genius and aims to empower “those people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects.”

The Imitation Game

Rated: PG-13
Film rating: 8 (Excellent)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong
Blu-ray: The Imitation Game
Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
US Blu-ray release date: 2015-03-31

On the surface, The Imitation Game is an old-fashioned biopic set during World War II and the early '50s that glorifies unlikely hero Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). The brilliant mathematician overcomes his Bletchley Park colleagues’ doubt about his ability to crack the Germans’ Enigma code and suffers their scorn toward his tireless dedication to his work, especially when it seems that his code-breaking machine, dubbed Christopher after a long-lost love, may not work in time to stop the Nazis. Just as Turing is determined that his invention will succeed, so too is director Morten Tyldum determined to make 21st century audiences aware of Turing’s genius and his significant contributions not only in helping the Allies win the war but in leading to our computer-reliant society. The Imitation Game also is an apology to Turing, who, in 1954, died at the far-too-young age of 41, as a result of Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality. (In late 2013, Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing for his 1952 conviction.)

As depicted in this film, Turing is a difficult man to understand, much less like. He prefers to work alone and looks with disdain at his colleagues, who are scripted as “types”: dashing Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode); gentle, family-loving Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard]; and overtly friendly, secretly sly John Cairncross (Allen Leech). Added to the mix is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a whiz at deciphering puzzles but forever an outsider in the workplace patriarchy. Turing recognizes another social outsider and helps her become as much a part of the code-breaking team as possible, despite the fact that she must ostensibly work only with other women in a supporting role. Once Clarke is allowed to come to Bletchley Park, she and Turing form a friendship that lasts for the rest of his life.

Wartime encourages and fuels secrets, and Turing not only has to keep quiet about his government work but the secrets he uncovers about his colleagues. In addition, the ones they learn about him could devastate his life. Turing often must hide who he is, what he feels, or what he has done, either professionally or personally. Gaining knowledge is only part of surviving a war. Knowing when to share information, how much, and with whom is the key to winning. Turing and his team of highly intelligent analysts learn this truth at high personal cost. After they break Enigma, they must play god to decide which decoded messages are passed on, thus saving lives, and which must be suppressed. Throughout the film, Turing struggles with the keeping or revelation of secrets.

Despite much of the film’s heavy drama, some scenes are surprisingly humorous because of Turing’s social awkwardness and inability to understand conversational cues. When his colleagues tell him they are going to lunch, Turing fails to acknowledge the group’s spokesman, Cairncross. After telling Turing for the third time they are leaving, Cairncross finally realizes that Turing does not understand he is being asked to come to lunch with them. Trying another tack, Cairncross asks Turing if he would like a sandwich. Turning declines, but then, almost to himself, explains that he does not like sandwiches and would prefer soup.

Later, when Turing follows Clarke’s suggestion that he act friendlier toward his co-workers by bringing them a gift and telling them a joke, he proves to be the worst at both. He hands out apples (his favorite) without explanation and, to his colleagues’ bemusement, flatly launches into delivering the joke. Cumberbatch plays Turing appropriately straight-faced, but his performance explains and illustrates but never mocks Turing’s social unease.

A low-key yet symbolically striking scene occurs late in the film, when Turing finishes a solo run and rests briefly in a field. While catching his breath, he watches a glorious sunset. By this point in the film, Turing indeed has run the most important race of his professional career: assisting MI6 by building Christopher and finally breaking the Enigma code. As Turing has been for most of his life, however, in this scene he is alone. As the sun symbolically sets on this pivotal time in his career, Turing can only wonder what his life will become when he returns to “normal” post-war society.

After its acclaimed U.S. debut at the Telluride Film Festival in late August, immediately followed by winning the audience favorite award at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), The Imitation Game was frequently praised during awards season. It earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Actor (Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Knightley), Best Director (Tyldum), and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore), which it won. These recognitions came in addition to five Golden Globe nominations and nine BAFTA nominations, among many others. It has been recognized as one of the “must-see” films of 2014.

Nevertheless, forget about the awards season hoopla and the resulting controversy about what is factual or purely fiction about Turing’s life or how this biopic should or should not be used politically. The truth is The Imitation Game is a good, but not perfect movie. Several stand-out performances, an evocative soundtrack, and the film’s statement about being “Other” are the main reasons to see The Imitation Game.

This is Cumberbatch’s star turn. Although the actor again succeeds in playing a smart man, Turing is far different from other roles for which he has been previously award nominated, such as Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock) or Stephen Hawking (Hawking). Cumberbatch’s portrayal is surprisingly intimate. The stiff upper lip young Turing develops as a defense mechanism wobbles when the adult defends his life’s work, and Turing’s stutter appears when he knows he is communicating inadequately with those who lack his brilliance but are far more savvy with conversation. The actor physically inhabits the role, through Turing’s slightly hunched gait, downward gaze or, especially, his tremored hand and lack of grace in the highly emotional climactic scene that likely is the reason Cumberbatch received so many acting nominations this past season. Cumberbatch is an actor who excels in subtly revealing a character’s inner life, and in The Imitation Game, Turing’s expressions and body language are as revealing as anything the script has him say.

Through Knightley’s portrayal of Joan Clarke, audiences are reminded how women were often belittled and undermined in the workforce during World War II, as well as long afterward. Knightley, in one of her best performances, proves that Clarke is not only intelligent but socially smart. She has learned how to get along with the misogynist men in the workplace (and at home) so that she can get on with her life and achieve as much as possible. Knightley turns what could have been merely the “girl” role in the all-male ensemble into the portrayal of a smart, compassionate, practical woman who can be an equal partner to Turing.

Two actors in supporting roles -- Mark Strong (as Stewart Menzies, Turing’s government liaison) and Alex Lawther (as young Turing) -- steal their scenes. Strong plays Menzies with wry humor that lightens the mood in dramatic scenes, but he especially succeeds in showing how Turing is often manipulated into doing whatever Menzies believes is best for the government. Lawther amazingly illustrates how schoolboy Turing grows up to be the mathematician who can break the Enigma code. His determination not to let bullies get the best of him, coupled with his awareness that he likely will always be a loner, is heartbreaking. What is astonishing about his performance, however, is how Lawther’s young Turing blends seamlessly with Cumberbatch’s portrayal of adult Turing.

Aiding the sometimes stilted script is an award-nominated musical soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. Whether the score meticulously, mechanically denotes the building of a machine or the main theme soars with strength and hope as a tribute to Turing’s war-time triumph, the music both supports the film and is worth hearing on its own.

Yet the film’s greatest contribution is the impact it has had on audiences. Whether at TIFF in September or in several small theaters in Florida throughout late December and January, I observed largely the same phenomenon: audiences were audibly and visibly moved by this film. At premieres, audiences are expected to applaud at the end of the screenings. In the local cinema during a matinee, they are not, yet audiences consistently clapped as the credits rolled. Some people cried when they learned of Turing’s fate. Many gasped loudly enough that the sound echoed through the early screening at Toronto’s Princess of Wales theater, as well as throughout smaller venues months later. Most importantly, audiences talked about the film and Turing.

Although the experience of watching a disc at home differs from the communal nature of seeing a film at the cineplex, The Imitation Game transfers well to the home screen. Because its strength is Turing’s story, which is told primarily in the enclosed spaces of a workshop or police interrogation room, the size of the screen does not matter. In fact, the Blu-ray extras increase the depth of the viewing experience because they provide the director’s insights to filming (through a comment track) and offer two deleted scenes, both featuring Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), whose investigation of Turing led to his conviction. A 23-minute “making of” feature highlights Turing’s contributions to the war effort and early computing machines. Highlights from a Q&A with the filmmakers at the Telluride Film Festival round out the package. Despite the interesting, educational bonus features, Cumberbatch or Knightley fans may be disappointed that they only appear a very few times (other than in the film’s clips) in these extras.

No matter whether a film receives nominations or awards, its ultimate worth and long-term value depend on how emotionally moved and entertained audiences are by the film and what they will remember about it. What will be remembered about The Imitation Game are its stellar performances and its empowering thematic reminder that “those people no one expects anything from [often] do the things no one expects”.

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