FIVE STAR FILM: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game (UK/ USA, 2014)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear 

IMDb Top 250: #223 (7/10/15)

In my review of The Great Gatsby, I said that director Baz Luhrmann "has always been more interested in drawing comparisons between different themes and cultures than he has ever been in historical fidelity." Luhrmann often went out of his way to suggest parallels between our world and the Roaring Twenties, whether in his contemporary soundtrack choices or the speeds at which Gatsby's car could travel. 
We approach a similar dilemma with The Imitation Game. It differs from Luhrmann's film due to its basis in historical characters, and if viewed narrowly as a biopic, it definitely has some issues. But if we look beyond the familiar beats of Oscar-bait films, seeing this as less of a portrait than a lens through which to view something else, the film gracefully and poignantly vaults over all its hurdles and emerges as one of the very best of the year. 
The Imitation Game certainly does raise the question of whether historical accuracy should come before dramatic tension. There are clearly many examples in Hollywood where embellishment for the sake of dramatic effect has gone too far, often for no good reason except to make America look good - think of U-571 or Pearl Harbour in recent memory. And it's not just Hollywood that falls into this trap; as much as I praised The Impossible, I still had reservations about the way it potentially marginalised the indigenous victims of the Boxing Day tsunami.
If The Imitation Game had proclaimed itself to be a documentary or a docudrama, then many of the criticisms made about its accuracy would carry more weight. Speaking purely as an historian, it is frustrating that Joan Clarke's means of joining the team is made more fantastical, or that Alan Turing's machine wasn't called Christopher, or that Commander Denniston becomes more of a villain than his relatives claim. But to obsess over these details to the point of rejecting the film entirely is to misunderstand the true intentions of the filmmakers.
Screenwriter Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his efforts, said repeatedly in interviews that he wanted to "honour" Turing's work and memory. The criticisms that the film glosses over the character's homosexuality are very misleading: drawing attention to his sexuality over and above anything else would be much more of an insult than completely ignoring it. But more than that, these and similar criticisms miss what Moore and director Morten Tyldum were trying to do: rather than faithfully reprint every part of Turing's life, they wanted to use his work as a springboard into complex themes and ideas.
An equally helpful, if unusual, point of comparison would be with Apocalypse Now. I said in my now-antiquated review that, from a coldly rational standpoint, there are many aspects of Francis Ford Coppola's epic which are problematic; it's overly long, over-indulgent, Marlon Brando is poorly directed, a lot of the characters aren't properly developed, and it contains one scene of actual animal cruelty. But in spite of all these things, the film is a masterpiece because it explains the horrors of the Vietnam War in a profound and powerfully visceral manner. 
What The Imitation Game does so brilliantly is to take Turing's extraordinary achievements and use them as a foundation for a compelling and ultimately tragic examination of secrecy. The title refers not only to Turing's famous test around artificial intelligence, but also to the lies which those working at Bletchley Park are forced to live in order to do their work and save people's lives. The film is a great examination of the ethical problems of lying to protect people, and how secrecy and denial can eat away and destroy a person's very self.
Perhaps the best scene in the entire film comes immediately after the team have cracked Enigma. After the cheers and tears have subsided, it suddenly dawns on the group that they cannot share their discovery with the outside world; if the Germans find out they have broken the code, they will adopt a new code and all the codebreakers' efforts will have been in vain. In order to protect their discovery, they have to withhold information and still let some ships be sunk. In a split second abstract mathematics becomes the reality of human lives, and we are shattered just as much as the characters.
This scene also illuminates the skill of Moore and Tyldum as filmmakers. In a more overtly Hollywood effort, the film would have climaxed with Turing's Eureka moment, before flashing forward to the end of the war and everyone going home. But like A Beautiful Mind before it, The Imitation Game tempers its triumphs with the frailty of human emotion. It adds conditions and consequences to the brilliant achievements of Turing and his team, and it has the confidence (unlike Ron Howard's film) to end on a deeply bittersweet note.
Secrecy and deception follow Turing throughout his life. His relationship with Christopher becomes so strong because he doesn't have to pretend to be anyone else when they are together. Christopher's death gives birth to the adult Turing, who is constantly having to pretend to be someone else, covering up not just his sexuality but his innermost feelings, and projecting an image of distance or aloofness. Turing never celebrates his contribution to the war effort because his triumph is balanced by his inner conflict, and his advances in computing could be interpreted as him atoning for his own flaws. In trying to make machines think, and think faster than humans, he is subtly showing his hand about his own feelings of inadequacy.
For all the skill of Moore's script, precious little of this nuance would have come out without Benedict Cumberbatch. From the first second you see him, you instantly accept him as Turing; the physical resemblance is palpable, and there is an intriguing sadness in his eyes which demands your attention. He inhabits Turing, shrinking into his every pecular foible and tic, and lacking any of the self-consciously showy nature of many 'awards worthy' performances. It solidifies his reputation (as if such a thing were necessary) as one of the most consistently arresting actors of our age.
One of the other pleasant surprises about The Imitation Game is its playful side. When Turing states bluntly to Joan Clarke what they are going to be doing, Clarke pauses and then simply says: "Oh." Many similar period dramas would have overegged the British stiff upper lip, reducing all the intrigue and high stakes to a mere comedy of manners. But this film has fun with the more rigid social mores of the 1940s, and Keira Knightley does a very good job with the scenes she is given.
On top of all that, The Imitation Game looks glorious. Tyldum proved in Headhunters that he can utilise shadows and composition to create tension, and here he directs with a steady and thoughtful hand, allowing things to unfold at a pace which is neither rushed nor ponderous. He is ably assisted by cinematographer Óscar Faura, who shot The Impossible alongside genre hits like The Orphanage and Julia's Eyes. The period details are immaculately captured, particularly the dark greens and browns of Bletchley Park and the stiff, starchy white of the men's shirts. As before, it never goes overboard with the period detail, but everything still looks and feels as it should. 
The Imitation Game is a striking and stunning film which uses Alan Turing's achievements as a starting point for a detailed and heartbreaking examination of secrecy, ethics and human nature. For all the arguments about the film's resemblance to the real-life story, Tyldum's creative decisions pay off in spades, resulting in a beautifully mounted, well-told drama which is at turns distressing, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. It remains one of the best films of 2014, as well as an essential and compelling piece of cinema. 


For more on Keira Knightley check out my WhatCulture! article on her career here.

NEXT REVIEW: Inkheart (2008)