The story of Alan Turing and his treatment by the British Government both during and after World War II has always been ripe for a remarkable film. After all, it’s not every day that a state hero, integral in helping break the Nazi’s infamous “Enigma Code,” is later arrested and prosecuted on charges of “gross indecency.” As a homosexual, Turing was closeted and cautious. By the end of his life, he was a scandal struggling with his now stained public persona. Sadly, the Oscar-bait bravado of director Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game glosses over the personal side of Turing to take a more awards season overview of his life. It’s entertaining when it should be essential.
We first meet Turing as he wallows in the misery of his conviction, the sentence being a combination of abject public humiliation and chemical castration. An investigator on the case (Rory Kinnear) decides to dig deeper into the man’s background, but hits a dead end when he gets to his government file. More research uncovers his hard days at boarding school as well as his problems fitting in as part of England’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Under the auspices of Cdr. Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) and with the help of fellow codebreakers like Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Turing comes up with a device that indeed unravels the Third Reich’s encrypted secrets. He also comes face to face with his past, as well as the prejudices of a post-War world.
There’s no denying the power of The Imitation Game. It’s inherent in the topic and supported by a brilliant performance from star Benedict Cumberbatch. Like A Beautiful Mind, it takes the subject of genius, the mind that can make sense out of the seemingly illogical or arcane, and tries to both explain and cultivate it — in essence, making the superhuman human. Turing’s case is even more appealing since it involved gay issues as well as the overwhelming threat of all out global conflict. Director Tyldum does a good job of presenting an aura of danger. There is a constant bombardment, a feeling that, within mere days, Hitler could actually realize his awful aims.
But this is not a perfect film, its flaws as obvious as they are disappointing. The biggest irony in Turing’s story is that, as a true savoir of the British state he would end up being destroyed by it, and all for a reason that a 2014 audience will find shockingly ridiculous. Granted, we still struggle through the contemporary same-sex agenda, but outside of some fringe elements, no one is considering the kind of punishment that Turing underwent. While Tyldum tries to tie it all together, to show that his subject had a persecution complex and was fatally flawed early on, the lack of any real substance to the homosexual aspect of who he was is concerning. It’s as if producers, plagued by thoughts that it “wouldn’t play in Peoria,” decided to ditch the “gay stuff” in order to forward the film’s little gold statue status.
Luckily, Cumberbatch is so good, so convincing as both as psychologically-scarred scholar and troubled individual that we don’t mind the practical, almost paint-by-numbers approach. True, we don’t have to suffer through the kind of crazy “gotcha” gimmickry that Ron Howard used to paint a picture of John Forbes Nash, but we also don’t get any new or inventive insights. Turing’s tale, once told, is almost (dare I say) predictable. We can see that he is haunted by his proclivities, afraid to face them until after he is declared a success by those who will later vilify him. The supporting work from Dance, Knightley, et.al. is excellent, but they seem less like characters and more like cogs in a very well crafted machine.
The Imitation Game is a good place for one to learn about the basics of Alan Turing’s sad, celebrated life (in 2009 he posthumously received a state apology: four years later he was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth). Too bad the film often seems more concerned about its own year-end legacy than its subject’s.