The Imitation Game, 2014.
Directed by Morten Tylbum.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode.
English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.
In 2015, the bid for Benedict Cumberbatch’s inevitable Oscar starts again. Last year’s The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon’s ham-fisted Julian Assange biopic) was horrible filmmaking, but it featured a great performance by Cumberbatch, who was tipped for an Academy Award nomination long before we discovered the film was an unsalvageable turd. It was, like The Imitation Game, an on-paper awards darling, with a hot young thing starring as a difficult real-life figure prone to Oscar-worthy moments of profound inspiration and Oscar reel-ready instances of unnecessary yelling. The Imitation Game, the tale of Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, is similarly crafted with awards consideration in mind, and is guaranteed an invite to the 2015 Academy Awards.
And yet, this time, on this distinctly by-the-numbers bio, the lead will ironically get his nomination for a performance that’s short of representing his best work. Combining the scene-stealing weirdy-ness of better-known roles in the likes of Sherlock and Star Trek and the touching humanity of his more ‘serious work’, Cumberbatch’s interpretation never settles: Turing’s a prickly misunderstood genius one minute, a vaguely autistic mix of Sheldon Cooper and Mr Spock the next. Cumberbatch IS good here, it’s just that the good comes in stops and starts, with the inconsistency of the portrayal only further muddying the waters of who Alan Turing really was.
That, of course, has been a source of controversy. Every biopic has its share of experts going over the material with a fine-tooth comb, but in this case it’s not an inaccurate detail here or there that’s the problem, it’s the relative whitewashing of a key aspect of the subject’s life. Morten Tyldum, the director of the gory, gloopy Nordic noir Headhunters, has given us something bloodless and unsexy, buttoned-up like its dry Brit stereotypes, and that stuffiness extends to the subject of Turing’s homosexuality.
Tyldum manages to keep within 12A confines and still wring thrills out of scenes of men standing around a room code-breaking, so kudos to him for that. But Turing’s sexuality is inextricably tied to the tragedy of his true story – in the film, it’s mainly approached in whispers and euphemisms. Flashbacks to a younger Turing that looks nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch give us a Hollywoodised guide of how the man came to terms with his sexuality; there, clear as day, is an unwillingness to fully commit to the truth.
A good supporting cast plays to its strengths. Charles Dance is delightfully antagonistic as Bletchley Park’s crotchety head of operations, Matthew Goode makes a charming cad of codebreaker Hugh Alexander and, as Chief of MI6, a typically shady Mark Strong puts in an appearance, presumably because he caught wind that, somewhere, a new period drama was prepared to fit him in another unconvincing hairpiece.
Keira Knightley, meanwhile, has landed a wisp of a character – Joan Clarke, who was briefly in an engagement of convenience with Turing – one whose part in the story has reportedly been greatly exaggerated, and boy does it show in how shoehorned-in some of her scenes feel. (There’s a sneaking suspicion that Clarke gets a trumped-up role as Turing’s ‘fiancee’ because someone behind the scenes wanted to hetero Turing up for the film.) Knightley is fine, but the character is a nothing defined by her love of maths.
We can talk about The Imitation Game exclusively within the context of Oscar politics; hell, that’s what it was designed for. It’s an inspirational biopic backed by the ‘we’ll buy your vote’ team of Weinstein and Weinstein, so it’s a shoo-in for a Best Picture nod. The rote screenplay is based on an inspirational true story, so bet on a nom for Best Adapted Screenplay as well. Its two ostensible leads are voguish performers starring as real-life inspirational heroes, so there will be noms for Best Actor and Best Actress, too (Knightley has barely anything to do here, but she’s famous, and it’s not like there’s much competition for Best Actress these days).
Will this award recognition be deserved? Not at all, but The Imitation Game ticks the Oscar checklist so carefully that it doesn’t matter what you or I or even the AMPAS voters think of the quality of the final product. The shame of it isn’t that the film is necessarily so BAD – it’s watchable, if never original or artful – it’s just that you might wish this particular subject hadn’t been chosen as one to so cynically exploit. Turing’s is a crushing story of a brilliant man horrifically betrayed by the country he helped to protect, comfily repackaged as a sanitised Best Picture contender.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.