The title of The Imitation Game refers to Alan Turing’s method of determining whether a machine is capable of demonstrating human intelligence – more commonly referred to as “the Turing test.” Turing’s achievements go far beyond a simple artificial intelligence experiment, and those achievements are chronicled in this biopic from Norwegian director Mortem Tyldum. The films splits its time over three timelines – addressing Turing’s youth, his work cracking the notorious German “Enigma” code in World War II (and inventing computers, besides) and his unjust prosecution for his homosexuality in his later years.
Of course, The Imitation Game is a fitting title for the film itself, a fundamentally imitative work that marches towards the Academy Awards as a serious contender through mimicking the countless prestigious biopics that preceded it. The film begins, without any sense of irony, with a bobby announcing “What’s all this then?” as he investigates Turing’s apartment after a break-in. Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is portrayed as an awkward – and ambiguously autistic, perhaps – “irascible genius” who demonstrates his mathematical prowess through swift mental calculations (not an especially impressive, nor necessary, feat at the higher levels of mathematics). There’s some era-appropriate sexism directed at Turing’s eventual colleague, Joan (Keira Knightley) to make us feel superior in our ‘enlightened’ present. Even the look of the film is familiar – which a palette of tweed, polished wood and rich navy – and you might get some déjà vu as Turing comes to an important revelation at a bar, à la A Beautiful Mind.
Derivative biopics are nothing new. There remains the potential for films in this genre to distinguish themselves even as they tick off the necessary checklist. Unfortunately, that potential largely unmet. It’s an engaging, handsome film with quality performances, yes, and Turing’s story is undeniably compelling, with inspiration and tragedy in equal measure. But The Imitation Game feels like the safest possible version of the story; it’s a competent crowd-pleaser but little more than that.
When it comes to historical films, I’m quite forgiving when it comes to historical inaccuracies. There are a handful here, as you’d expect; the role of the Polish in cracking Enigma is obviated entirely, while a undercooked espionage subplot without any historical basis attempts to spice up the proceedings with some thriller elements. (And no-one knows how to pronounce “Euler,” if you want to get especially nitpicky.) What I’m less forgiving of is the absence of an emotional spine, a common problem in biopics. Biopics’ emotional coherency is often swallowed up by unwise attempts to cover every significant moment in their subject’s life. The Imitation Game sidesteps that problem by focusing primarily on Turing’s achievements in the war, but encounters another obstacle entirely – a reluctance to address its subject’s sexuality.
Screenwriter Graham Moore has been upfront about his disinterest in portraying Turing as a gay man, and the film tiptoes around the subject with pernicious ease. The first half of the film avoids the subject altogether – it wouldn’t surprise me that the mid-film revelation might play as a plot twist to unaware audiences expecting a conventional romantic pairing between Cumberbatch and Knightley. The depiction is demure; despite being arrested for his dalliance with a male prostitute, we never see Turing kiss or even embrace another man.
The only romance to be found is based in reality, revolving around Turing’s infatuation for his school friend Christopher (Jack Bannon), and there’s a clearly an attempt to establish this as emotional bedrock for the film. Turing names his code-cracking machine after Christopher, an invention on the part of Moore that suggests a motivation that the film never evinces. The strive to break the Enigma code is a large-scale goal, rather than a personal motivation; historically accurate this may be, but it doesn’t make for an especially compelling story. The decision to play coy with Turing’s sexuality is both a reflection of widespread homophobia and a decision that irreparably damages the film.
That said, the Allies’ eventual success in breaking the Enigma code (yeah, spoilers, Germany lost the war) is perfectly executed. Many of my reservations about the film proper are alleviated by the spectacular sequence where an ingenious discovery solves the problem facing Turing and his colleagues. It captures that indescribable moment of elation that accompanies cracking a seemingly-impossible problem, familiar to anyone with a background in mathematics or programming. It’s just a shame that just as The Imitation Game accumulates some real energy, it abruptly concludes the World War Two timeline with a mandatory montage. There’s a perfunctory and misguided attempt to link Turing’s own experiences to his test – which shouldn’t have made out of the first draft – and then the credits roll, allowing us to sagely consider how we’re so much more welcoming of queer people now etcetera etcetera.
I should probably talk about Benedict Cumberbatch, I guess, given he’s practically a lock for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor at this stage. Uh, he’s fine. His performance begins as a mumble-mouthed caricature and then matures into something more believable, but there’s nothing especially exceptional about it. It has all the necessary qualities for an Oscar nominated performance and he doesn’t really do anything wrong, but there are dozens of better male lead performances this year. More impressive is Knightley, who imbues an underwritten role with something special while elevating Cumberbatch’s performance by her mere presence.