Simulating Real Life: “The Imitation Game” Reviewed

By: Judd Livingston

I first heard the name Alan Turing in Grade 9. We were using a programming language named after him in our computer class. It was severely outdated even then, having been created some 15 years earlier. But our teacher felt it still had merit as the foundation of computer programming. While it was named after the genius, the language had in fact been created decades after his death by several computer scientists at University of Toronto. Our teacher did tell us who Turing was in a limited form: no mention of either his work as a cryptographer, or his homosexuality, was made. And it’s those two points that the new film The Imitation Game deals with almost exclusively.

Over the years I have become a little more informed with regards to Alan Turing than I was back in the ninth grade. I can now confidently say that the film is not strictly non-fiction. It’s more of a highly-dramatized version of events, with many historical points being selectively omitted for the purpose of storytelling and added drama. Admittedly, this is pretty typical for any movie with a “based on a true story” in front of it. But that doesn’t mean The Imitation Game is a bad movie. It just means it’s not exactly a biography.

"Hello, yes, I'm Benedict Cumberbatch, er, I mean, Alan Turing."

“Hello, yes, I’m Benedict Cumberbatch, er, I mean, Alan Turing.”

The Imitation Game tells the story of math whiz and inventor of the modern computer Alan Turing and his work with the British Government in World War II decoding German encrypted transmissions. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone.

Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch, as Turing, acts the hell outta this one. While on a purely superficial level, Turing and Cumberbatch’s other misunderstood genius eccentric, Sherlock Holmes, have much in common, BC plays them entirely differently. As well he should. Cumberbatch is the gem of the film, which is directed competently by Morten Tyldum, whose presence is not felt in any significant way. This is not a Scorcese film, nor is it Kubrick or Kurosawa; it doesn’t bare the mark of it’s director (or, if it does, the mark is much subtler than that of others). It’s a relatively straightforward drama that works well with its relatively straightforward directing.

The cast, as a whole, do an admirable job although some of them are working with more two-dimensional characters. Charles Dance (who you’ll know as Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) gives a wonderful turn, yet his character is formulaic and in some ways rather absurd. His sole purpose is as a foil to Turing, which is neither historically accurate, nor particularly effective. (I would have preferred the more obvious, though less “present” choice of the Germans.) Likewise, Keira Knightley’s Joan Clark. While Knightley does an excellent job acting out the role, it’s a shame it’s not a more substantive, meatier character. Even Turing himself devolves into literary trope on occasion. The audience is at times left feeling rather beaten over our heads with the notion of what a “tortured genius” he is. A little more subtlety would have worked better. Faith in the audience’s ability to read between the lines isn’t really apparent here. Matthew Goode and Mark Strong both come through as strong supporting characters. This is not a surprise to me: they both always seem to excel, even if they fly somewhat under the radar.

The wider cast of "The Imitation Game."

The wider cast of “The Imitation Game.”

I was also concerned to some degree with the emotional manipulation that the director employs at the end of the film. They lead the audience to believe that Turing took his own life as a result of hormonal treatment imposed on him by the government in an attempt to suppress his homosexual urges. While this horrendous sentence was doled out to Turing, he was off the hormones for more than a year before his death, and whether he took his own life or not has been called into question. Many of his close friends have said that he was a jovial and humorous man, happy in his work and homelife, nearing the time of his death. I understand the filmmakers are trying to create a tragedy of sorts, but they’ve also taken away from the legacy of the real Alan Turing at the expense of their theme. I felt it was a bit of an “easy road” maneuver on their part. Sometimes real life doesn’t fit the templates of Hollywood scriptwriting, but it can also be infinitely more exciting. I feel this is again an instance of the director not trusting the intelligence of the audience.

But my criticisms are all in hindsight. The simple reality is the movie was engaging and entertaining and I’m merely pointing out the flaws that I felt prevented a good movie from becoming a truly great one.

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