Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Cracking Codes

"The Imitation Game"

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game"

From The Weinstein Company comes a new British biopic, set in World War II – really a new instalment in a franchise that includes The Reader, The King's Speech and The Iron Lady. The film tells the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the great British mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer science pioneer, breaking the Enigma code, and how his country thanked him for this immense service. (I shan’t give the details of the plot here, but a short biography of Turing can be read on his Wikipedia page by those who know there is no real jolt of surprise in a Weinstein biopic.)

Viewers who have seen the earlier films I mentioned know what to expect – a staid and ingratiating account of an extraordinary individual going through trying times, but managing to grandstand their persecution and emotions before a satisfying end is reached. Sets, costumes and diction are meticulously crafted to fit the period, and Alexandre Desplat provides a suitably moody score to evoke the gloom of war-weary England. Only conventional camera and editing techniques are used: we wouldn’t want those getting in the way of the quiet heroism of whichever protagonist it is being honoured this time. Unadorned admiration is our watchword.

As the film began, and for most of the first act, I was expecting it to take the now standard path of romanticising the disdainful and derisive, highly intelligent outsider, and draw some sort of parallel yet again between immense creativity and genius, and social disorders or mental illness. Fortunately, the film abstains from that route, for the most part. And this is largely thanks to the controlled performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. He manages to show us how unpleasant Turing finds his situation, and how much he yearns to be normal. In addition to his immense social awkwardness, Turing is a homosexual, and homosexual acts are illegal in Britain, and will remain so right up until the 1960s. Rather disappointingly, after showing us the astounding achievement of Turing and his team – which includes Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) – in breaking the Enigma code, the film decides not to focus on the wondrous advancements he brings about in a number of fields, but instead presents him as a victim of a bigoted system – a homosexual wronged by intolerance and small-minded ingratitude. No doubt this on-the-nose pandering appeals to the simplistic left-wing politics of Hollywood (as evidenced by the film’s eight Oscar nominations), but it certainly makes for dull viewing, with a degree of bathos in the conclusion.

The film is redeemed somewhat by its actors: Cumberbatch and Knightley consistently internalise all their anxieties and frustrations, disappointments and melancholy. Each of the team members does an admirable job in showing whatever emotion is required of them at the time, and Charles Dance (playing the commanding officer of this top secret project, Commander Alastair Denniston) channels all the authority and menace we’ve come to expect from his now familiar television role, Lord Tywin Lannister. Every now and then a moment in one of these performances shines through the mire of banality, but without the ministrations of a better director, the film remains dreadfully earnest, and dishearteningly unimaginative. It draws a neat comparison between the ciphers used in puzzles and coded messages, and the cryptic way conversations and social interactions are carried out, pushing the point still further that Turing is fascinated and incredibly gifted with the first, and hopelessly lost in the irrationalities of the second.

The Imitation Game could have been much more interesting than it is. With a framing device showing that it was an enormous amount of strain on Turing to keep all the secrets he did – for himself, for others, and for His Majesty’s government – it could have been an examination of a subject Turing was very interested in: the differences in thinking between a man and a machine (each of which is required to keep secrets in this film), and at what point the two become indistinguishable, and, by implication, what it is that separates man from his creations, and that distinguishes his essence from his endeavours. Such an investigation, far more foundational, yet far more demanding than the depiction of a tragically persecuted hero, I think would befit a biopic about the father of the world’s digital revolution.

The Imitation Game is directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore.

Benedict Cumberbatch with his team


  1. I think the Imitation Game is an excellent movie!! Its completely fact based and Benedict is absolutely amazing in it!!! The things he went through as a gay man in the movie are completely true and should help others to become aware of this when they watch this movie

    1. A film does not gain any merit by virtue of being fact-based. The scenes in the war, I've read, are not entirely accurate in depicting the contributions of others to the breaking of Enigma. I'm not sure how accurate the postwar scenes are, but this movie's pandering piety concerning this gay man's tribulations should not prove enlightening to viewers, but rather narrow-minded. The implicit remark made here is that even if a man makes some of the most extraordinary and beneficial achievements in the twentieth century, but also happens to be homosexual and persecuted for it, the more important aspect of his life to focus on is that persecution. These are pernicious left-baiting politics, and just like any bigoted homophobic person's actions of addressing (and setting themselves against) a homosexual's orientation before any other aspect of the homosexual person, this film places his orientation at a greater point of interest than anything else, saying that no matter what else can be said of a homosexual's life, wrongful hostility towards him should be the most important facet.

      Besides all my moral and political objections to this film, I also think it's a poor representation of cinema. Tyldum makes use of the blandest and most conventional techniques here, and it would have been just as informative (or, perhaps, even more so) for anyone to have read this story in a newspaper article or Facebook post than to have seen it in this film. The Imitation Game does nothing to honour Alan Turing's life, nor the wonders of cinema.


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