You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Alan Turing. Until 2013, when the Queen granted this wartime cryptanalyst and mathematician a royal pardon, he had all but been omitted from the history books.
This biopic seeks to correct that. Partitioned into three segments: his time at Sherbourne School in Dorset, during which he was builled; his ground-breaking and astounding contributions to deciphering the German Enigma code during WW2 and his tragic conviction of ‘ gross indecency’ that led to chemical castration and ultimately, suicide, in 1954. Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a belated and beloved recognition of the man that history forgot.
Demanding our attention from the get-go, Tyldum combines enthralling thriller with tasteful period drama in equal measure. Naval bombings collide with cucumber sandwiches, Nazi superiority with walks in the stunning British countryside and Soviet spies with pints in the pub. It makes for a biopic that is surprisingly amusing, and frequently heart-pounding.
It’s testament to screenwriter Graham Moore and Tyldum’s slick, pacy direction that that a set-up where we ultimately know the outcome, can feel so tense and emotionally heightened. As Turing battles authorities and naysayers to build his painstakingly crafted enigma-deciphering machine Christopher, I could feel my fists clenching in the hope the cogs would eventually stop to signify a cracked code.
Alongside all the calculations, computers and cryptography, this is a film dealing very much with relationships and humanity. Alex Lawther plays young Alan Turing with incredible pathos, as a boy struggling to connect with his classmates. Whilst Turing’s later interactions with his Bletchley Park colleagues provide some much needed humour amid WW2 woes.
Despite all these ingredients spelling out masterpiece, I can’t help but feel we’re two letters short of the truth. The Imitation Game skates around the periphery of the sensitive subject matter and dives headfirst into safe, saccharine territory. There are clichés in abundance and each moment of dramatic intensity is orchestrated to the point of contrivance. The moment during which a relative of one of the code-breakers is on a naval ship about to be bombed, you find Tyldum and co. hammering home this conflict just a tad too indelicately.
The Imitation Game is as calculating and tightly-woven as the Turing machine itself – almost to the point of robotic predictability. Economical in it’s dispatch of narrative strands and executed with the extraordinary precision seen in Tyldum’s first film, the slick Norwegian thriller ‘Headhunters’, my only wish is that the film had coloured outside of the lines just once.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t deliver when it comes to emotional climaxes or generating sympathy for this hitherto historically neglected figure, but rather it never trusts the audience to glean its emotional complexity without first spelling it out. Almost like a teacher consistently reminding you to ‘show us how you got there’ when doing Maths problems.
Screenwriter Graham Moore, believes firmly in the rule of three and forgoes nuance for a rather cumbersome repetition of the film’s central tenet: “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Indeed, it goes through various stages of transformation and takes on different meanings, but the underlying feeling is that Moore prefers clarity as cut-glass as the British accents that feature than any possibility of ambiguity or interpretation.
Some films that err on the side of caution, as arguably this biopic does, are elevated by central performances of overwhelming conviction and magnetism. Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln is one such example. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing is another.
To say Cumberbatch completely immerses himself in this role seems flippant. Turing’s clipped vowels, curt mannerisms and anti-social behaviours are mastered with beguiling ease. And as the stakes are raised, his intellectual capabilities, vulnerabilities and the tragic, climactic result of gross mistreatment are conveyed with the assured and poignant dexterity of a man at the height of his game. The point at which Turing tries to push poor Joan Clarke away reveals the many layers to Cumberbatch’s performance, one for which he fully deserves that much hyped Oscar nomination.
Keira Knightley too, elevates the film and seems at her most comfortable when playing distressed individuals in period dramas. And the character of Joan Clarke provides ample opportunity for her to demonstrate the compassion, subtlety and wit of which she is capable. Knightley’s Clarke exudes warmth, vivacity and the frustration of a woman frequently underestimated.
There is steadfast support from the likes of Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Allen Leech, as various cogs in the code-breaking machine. Though their characters are all relatively one-note caricatures, they are no-less charming for it.
The look and sound of the film are exquisitely composed. The soundtrack is delivered courtesy of the genius that is Alexandre Desplat, of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame. He underscores the intensity and urgency of certain situations with great style, and the rhythmic, pulsating feel of the score seems to resemble the high-wired, methodical nature of Turing’s mind. It’s far more constant and elegant than his quirky work on Wes Anderson’s latest, but in that regard it suits the film perfectly.
Meanwhile, the cinematography effervescently captures crisp, autumnal British weather and the soft-focus lighting makes it ideal for Sunday afternoon viewing. Oscar Faura has given us something utterly sumptuous and pristine to look at, and Bletchley Park has perhaps never looked so alive.
Grumblings about brushing Turing’s homosexuality under the carpet have been voiced. Indeed, whilst open to his colleagues and to Joan about his sexuality, we never see him act upon or necessarily confront these desires. Instead they are given credence – and innocence – during a flashback to Turing’s childhood when a close friendship develops into something potentially more. And then sidelined somewhat to focus on the blossoming intellectual companionship between Turing and Clarke. Once again, heterosexuality is championed as being the safer, and more lucrative option.
And yet for all this potential criticism, Tyldum has delivered a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly British and thoroughly engrossing depiction of the events at Bletchley Park that altered history. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave the cinema wiping away stray tears. But for a man as unique, eccentric and brilliant as Alan Turing, it all feels rather, well, tame
Verdict: A paint-by-numbers biopic, comparable to ‘a beginners guide’ to Alan Turing. Nevertheless, this is a memorable and poignant cinematic experience, featuring a career best turn from Benedict.