The world’s sweetheart Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German Enigma code and generally did clever things with computers before computers existed. Set during the Second World War at code-cracking HQ Bletchley Park The Imitation Game follows Turing from his recruitment through to the cracking of Enigma with flashes back to his childhood and forwards to a glimpse at his struggles after the war. The film has the solid, slightly predictable, feel of a classic British period drama despite coming from an American screenwriter (Graham Moore) and Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum). It is 2014’s answer to The King’s Speech and Saving Mr Banks and as such feels a little safe and familiar.
On first glance The Imitation Game is a thoroughly enjoyable film. In fact it is a thoroughly enjoyable film but on closer inspection could have been so much better. Cumberbatch is of course brilliant in the role of the socially awkward closeted genius (nobody mention Sherlock please) and the supporting cast of Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and many others each give their best dramatic performances with plenty of humour thrown in. The acting is solid and the script allows for plenty of laughs in a film about a tedious solution to a life threatening problem. The Imitation Game even managed to make the problem of Enigma and its ultimate solution almost comprehensible. Certainly comprehensible enough for those of us watching to have a grasp on the issue and know how badly they were doing at solving it.
On the surface The Imitation Game is a fine British film, the sort to garner applause at a press screening and generate some Oscar buzz. Scratching beneath the surface however reveals a film that is far from perfect.
What lets The Imitation Game down is that it focusses so much on just one aspect of both the work at Bletchley Park and the life of Alan Turing. Bletchley Park was not done and dusted the minute Enigma was cracked. As the film briefly mentions there were years after cracking the code during which Turing and his team had to decide which of the decoded attacks they could avert and which they had to let happen for fear of revealing to the Germans that Enigma was no longer secure. This moral maze of weighing up human lives using statistics would have been fascinating to watch and made for a tricky test for the character of Turing but after a quick mention The Imitation Game skips on. It’s hard to understand why so much time was dedicated to a short period in Turing’s life. Cracking Enigma may have ended the war but it certainly wasn’t an immediate victory. When a film focusses on an event that finishes years before the war ends it removes any real sense of triumph as we are no longer with the characters when the enemy finally surrenders. The war is won in the blink of an eye and this climax is decidedly anticlimactic.
As for the life of Alan Turing the film does detail the messy and unfair ending to his life but I did not feel that enough was made of the appalling way he was treated by the government in the final years of his life. By the end of the film Alan Turing the man, rather than Alan Turing the code breaking machine, still remained a mystery to me. The Imitation Game shows a lot of Turing’s actions but fails to uncover what was going on inside his head. Turing’s was clearly a light of triumph and suffering but only a snapshot of the latter was afforded the audience.
The tragic personal life of Alan Turing and the triumphant decoding of Enigma make for strange bedfellows as they are presented in The Imitation Game. The two strands of the film, that of an enemy being outsmarted and of a genius being abused by a government, don’t quite tie together and as one crescendos the other nosedives leaving the audience unsure what emotion to feel. Alan Turing definitely has a story to be told and The Imitation Game is an admirable attempt at telling it but not complete.
A fine British film, by an American and a Norwegian, that will do very well at the box office and please most that go to see it. But sadly a film that feels like a missed opportunity. The press conference after the screening was filled with anger at how Turing was treated but this aspect of his life was too much of a footnote in the film itself.
You will enjoy it, just don’t over think it too much. I clearly have.
The Imitation Game has a UK release date of 14th November 2014 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 9th and 10th of October 2014.
Below is a photo from the press conference, click to make a little too big. The main takeaway from the conference would be some advice from Benedict Cumberbatch; if you are intrigued by the character of Alan Turing then do not stop with this film. Read everything you can about Turing as The Imitation Game is only the start.