The Imitation Game ****
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Allen Leech Director: Mortem Tyldum
Living in Manchester, I know Alan Turing as a name that's etched deep into the cannon of its most famous and prized and alumni. But it's not a name that's universally known. Due to its burial deep inside Britain's state secrets for more than fifty years, more was publicly known of Turing's tragic downfall than the key role he played in (not just British, but world) history until recently. In reality, his name should carry the same weight as the greatest thinkers ever to have lived, but unlike the others, he is a war hero too. Arguably, his work saved the lives of 14 million people. Could Einstein say that?
The Imitation Game tells the story of Turing (Cumberbatch) and his small team of cryptographers and mathematicians who toiled for years to crack the Enigma Code, an encrypted "impossible" code that the Nazis used to give their orders over the radio. Despite military sceptics (including a suitably poisonous turn from Dance), Turing begins to build a machine that has the capacity to crack the code with the assistance of Joan (Knightley), who encourages him to think wildly outside the box. But with the truth about his work during the war buried afterward, the significance of this great thinker is overlooked as he is arrested for obscenity due to his homosexuality. For the majority of the film, Turing's sexual preferences are incidental. The focus rightly showcases his achievements, not just in war, but in the creation of the world's first computer. But it is this film's final act that is the most poignant. Regardless of all his services to country and mankind, he was torn apart and destroyed because society decided his sexuality was criminal. Throughout, this biopic-cum-thriller plays against the foreboding of this tragedy, with his landmark work accumulating and his status as hero mounting only for the rug to be pulled from under us. As history, it's shamefully accurate and as entertainment, it's distressingly unnerving. This isn't how it should have been. This isn't how Britain should have rewarded it's greatest war hero.
Cumberbatch is perfectly cast here, with the social awkwardness of the Sherlock we fell in love with played against his natural bookishness. Turing is almost the ultimate Everyman: he achieved greatness against the odds, despite his flaws and despite his eventual status as social pariah. Contrasting him to the looks, charisma and charm of Matthew Goode does nothing but highlight the enormity of his ordinariness, albeit socially. But as the film repeats often, "Sometimes the people you expect the least of, surprise you the most" (I may have paraphrased there a little), which is exactly what I think of Cumberbatch too. Meanwhile, Knightley is easily the best she's been since Atonement, which means you can't help but wonder if she was actually born in the wrong half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, The Imitation Game lacks the scale and grandeur we've come to expect from modern biopics of this type. But with its focus on the internal struggle as significant as the code-breaking itself, it sets it apart from its Bletchley Park predecessor, the decidedly wet Enigma. But while this film's intentions are honourable, it does feel like a project that has been amplified from more humble aspirations by the involvement of a high profile cast. The script is wobbly in places, while the insertion of aerial wartime vistas play counterpoint to the rest of the film. The attempt to underline the significance of Turing's work is there throughout, but it didn't quite encapsulate the gravitas that perhaps it should have. But, saying that, its moments of humour are welcome... So in reality, all this film really needed was a more confident director to wipe away its residual wishy-washyness and rank this truly deserving biopic amongst the best of them.
Available to download, stream and buy on DVD.