Alan Turing’s incredible story of breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code remained a well-protected secret for decades. His story is one of great triumph and deep tragedy. However, Turing’s victimization and subsequent death by cyanide-laced apple has been sugarcoated in the latest retelling, The Imitation Game. Like Turing himself, this film has been neutered on its way to mass market as a way to make a less enlightened majority feel more comfortable about a truly dark chapter of global history.
The facts of Turing’s death are grisly; he committed suicide after the British government had him systematically and chemically castrated for being a homosexual. The details of this story do not make for a rousing, uplifting ending to a movie, as is typical of most Hollywood biopics. Nor do they tell the story of a man whose differences set him apart and marked him as a target for ridicule, only for him to triumph in the end. So in the grand spirit of all things Oscar, The Imitation Game hides these terrible crimes committed against Turing in an all-too-brief aside and all but removes his suicide.
Turing learns as a child and repeats as an adult that, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” This defining message of The Imitation Game overlooks the fact that no matter Turing’s triumph (the film suggests that he saved the lives of 14 million people), he would continue to be the target of bigotry and harassment from those who saw him as different.
Removing the tragic importance of his death acts as a salve for those who continue to practice the very bigotry and hatred that drove Turing to his death. This is all in service of a celebratory ending meant to pat the backs of all us “modern, enlightened people” who would never think to treat someone like those “old-fashioned bigots” treated Turing.
The structure of The Imitation Game is split between three distinct timelines, with Turing’s time during the war dominating screen time. The first period audiences see features a detective who surmises that there is something amiss about Turing. The film means for audiences to ask a similar question: “Just what is going on with the mysterious Turing?” This viewpoint only serves to further place Turing into the role of “other,” except that this time it is us that are looking at him with uncertainty. The detective, our audience surrogate, inadvertently triggers a process that would ultimately bring about Turing’s death. Suddenly, we become complicit in his torture, we are contributors to Turing’s anguish. Still, we get to celebrate Turing’s achievements and return to celebrate his stunning victory fireside with his colleagues.
It is hard to ignore the talented faces that lend their acting talents to The Imitation Game and manage to elevate mediocre dialogue and expected narrative developments. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the lead role as Turing, dials down his Sherlock persona to bring some necessary humanity to the character. He rides a fine line in his portrayal of the socially disconnected Turing between completely alien and overbearingly quirky in a way that often goes one way or another.
Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke is the sole female member of Turing’s Enigma team and serves as his de facto love interest. The obvious spin on this situation is that Turing was a homosexual and Clarke’s involvement in the program eventually becomes inextricably linked with her “romance” with Turing. Knightley is wonderful in the film and makes the most of the minimal screen time her character receives. She’s one of the few actors in the film that is able to breathe naturalism into the rather dry, humorless dialogue.
Graham Moore’s script, outside of burying Turing’s tragic end, is standard biopic fare with all the faux-rousing moments one has come to expect from these films. It is essentially The King’s Speech 2 and not the only film about the tragic life of a British genius being released even this month (alongside The Theory of Everything.
The King’s Speech was a rousing, if formulaic, film that clearly established a goal for its protagonist, methods for his success, obstacles in his path, and ways to measure his success. The Imitation Game establishes a goal for its protagonists in breaking the Enigma code, but never institutes any measurements for success. When Turing is toiling away at his invention and others doubt his claims, the audience has no means by which to judge his actions on their own. When the machine is whirring away at an answer to the Enigma code and it suddenly stops, we are left wondering what that means. Success or failure? What are all the characters doing to support Turing’s goals? Knightley seems to be stuck in a room for a majority of the film and we are never sure what it is that she is able to provide to the process.
Director Morten Tyldum’s previous film Headhunters stuck closely to genre formula as well but exhibited a gallows humor and self-awareness that made it stand out. While The Imitation Game is slickly produced and well lit, it lacks any kind of directorial stamp or visual creativity, outside of a few match cuts, that Tyldum exhibited before. Turing’s machine’s exposed, red wiring resembles veins abstractly but nothing is done with the strange concept. Choices like this make it obvious that The Imitation Game would have greatly benefitted from some gonzo visuals to support Cumberbatch’s performance.
It is clear that the Weinstein Company, who distributed this film, have an audience pleaser on their hands; it did win the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. They’ve built a machine calculated, perhaps by Turing himself, to cynically grab at Oscars without the compassion and honesty to do real service to Alan Turing’s story, one that still deserves to be told.
Dan Gvozden is a MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. He received his B.F.A in Film/Television Production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He writes film criticism professionally for a number of newspapers and his blog, Grind My Reels (www.grindmyreels.com), and was a co-founder and programming director of the Annapolis Film Festival. For the past several years he taught film and photography at Severn School and co-hosted the television program “Reel Talk with Brian Roan and Dan Gvozden.” In his spare time he is the Editor-in-Chief of a blog detailing everything anyone would want to know (and more) about Spider-Man called Superior Spider-Talk (www.superiorspidertalk.com).