This is the latest in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!
Biopics are an interesting genre of film – they can sometimes be brilliant when concerning the non-famous (Erin Brokovich) or terrible when focusing on the super-famous (Diana/Grace). The Imitation Game proves to be something quite different, because it takes a man whose work had a huge impact on how we live our lives – Alan Turing – and yet whose tragic, world-changing story was not known for many years after his death. You may not know it yourself, and this film is a fine representation of his rollercoaster life.
Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a genius mathematician whose work alongside a team of others at Bletchley Park cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code – used to hide messages from the Allies – changed the face of World War Two. Only recently receiving both governmental and royal pardons – for the crime of being gay at a time when people were chemically castrated for being so – Turing’s work in early computing helped shape and form our modern world and its dependence on thinking machines, but his role was only revealed many years afterwards due to government secrecy, and his untimely death in the early 1950s robbed him of the ability to see where his work would take us.
Both the performances and direction of The Imitation Game sell the stress and unimaginable pressure these men and woman (not a typo) were under to help crack the “impossible” code. Without meaning to sound cliche, it really is the case that Cumberbatch disappears into this role – I didn’t find myself making lazy Sherlock allusions to a character who has difficulty relating to others, because Turing has no charm – and he becomes meek, shrunken and yet possessed by his astonishing aptitude for invention and problem-solving. Turing’s obvious discomfort around other humans is sold through stutters and a sense of unease, and it’s only through his work and his close friendship with Joan Clarke (a surprisingly good Keira Knightley) that Turing softens; Cumberbatch provides a respectful portrayal of a great, complicated man who could never truly be himself, despite playing such a significant role in the bloodiest conflict.
Other actors are great if underused in comparison – Matthew Goode manages to be the world’s most caddish mathematician as Hugh Alexander, Allen Leech (who I’m reliably informed is in Downton Abbey) is a friendly Oirish colleague, and Charles Dance strolls in playing Tywin Lannister-lite as the impatient Commander Denniston. Keira Knightley meanwhile really surprised me with a clipped, reserved but warm portrayal of Clarke, the only woman to work in the team aiming to decrypt the codes – I was shocked to learn that some of the events the film portrayed concerning her were indeed based on fact, and so Knightley deserves respect for giving this remarkable woman some character. It’s interesting that at a time when cinema’s portrayal of female characters is so often questioned, real life offers an example of a woman who faced barriers and overcame them.
Director Morten Tyldum effortlessly recreates the 1940s, with muted but sharp colours working alongside accurate sets and archive footage to sell the period to the viewer, while the editing of three distinct periods in Turing’s life – which could have worked against the film – actually helps to strengthen the linkages between his childhood, his work during the war and the last weeks of his life. The stakes feel high, even though we know what the team achieved, and the film doesn’t shirk the reality of what happened to Turing as a result of his sexuality – hitting home the fact that it took over 50 years for the UK establishment to both recognise his work and apologise for his (and, it must be noted, many others’) unjust suffering.
There isn’t a great deal I can find that’s wrong or bad about this film – some of the plot points that I thought were made up to make the story more dramatic were in actual fact real events, though one scene is quite awkwardly Hollywood-style uplifting. That is genuinely my sole complaint about the film!
I seem to keep saying lately that there is a growth in the amount of serious or adult dramas at the cinema, even when many in the film world seem to despair that brainless blockbusters are dominating everything. The Imitation Game offers yet another trip to the cinema that offers an educational, dramatic and worthwhile experience – let’s just hope that more of these sorts of films continue to be of such high quality.