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Imitation Game, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"On The Turing Away"
4 stars

In an inversion of the most famous joke in "Tropic Thunder," it seems that the best way to go about scoring a Best Actor nomination in this year's Oscar derby is to find a role that allows one to go full genius. Last month, for example, saw the release of "The Theory of Everything," in which Eddie Redmayne gingerly stepped into the shoes (and later wheelchair) of the noted astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in a film that depicted how his intellect managed to overcome the massive physical horrors and impositions of ALS in ways that literally changed the ways in which we see the world. Now we have "The Imitation Game," in which British cult favorite Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, an equally brilliant mathematician whose efforts also helped to change the course of history but whose professional triumphs went largely unheralded for decades and whose personal life ended in a manner both tragic and unfair. I didn't much care for "The Theory of Everything" because I didn't much care for the way that it soft-pedaled both Hawking's genius and some of the messier aspects of his life in an effort to transform it into a more crowd-pleasing drama. There is some of that in "The Imitation Game" as well but of the two, I prefer that one because, much like its central figure, it is a slightly more prickly and off-beat work and is all the more interesting because of it.

Already hailed as a genius in his field at Cambridge, the film begins with him being summoned to take part in a top-secret program based in Bletchley Park devised by Winston Churchill to help turn the tide of war by cracking Hitler's Enigma code, a stunningly complex system that allowed the Nazis to send messages without fear of the Allieds cracking it--not only were there approximately 159 million million combinations that they would have to sift through in order to find the correct one but it would automatically reset itself at the end of the day, requiring the whole procedure to start all over again. At first, Turing's fellow nerds struggle to crack the code by conventional means but Turing becomes convinced that the best way to beat a machine is with another machine. With Churchill's blessing, he takes over the program and begins to devise a machine known as the "bombe" capable of making calculations far quicker than even the smartest human. After a long struggle and threats of a shutdown, Turing and the others finally get the machine working and not only does it play a key part in the eventual Allied victory but his innovations would also prove to be instrumental in the development of the computer.

And yet, until recent years, Turing's name was relatively unknown to the general public. Part of this was due to the incredible secrecy regarding all aspects of the Enigma project, of course, but part was also due to the fact that at the same time that Turing was enveloped in a world of secrets, he was harboring a pretty large one himself--his homosexuality. Back then, such a thing was considered a crime in England and even a whisper along those lines would have destroyed Turing's career. While working on the Enigma project, he is able to deflect suspicion for a while through his relationship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the lone female codebreaker in the group and perhaps the only person he feels comfortable with, presumably because they are both outsiders in a way. Although they almost talk themselves into a marriage of convenience, they eventually part ways and after the war, Turing is eventually arrested for what was then known as "gross indecency." Because of this, the man who helped win the war for England was given the choice by his own country of going to prison or undergoing chemical castration treatments designed to "cure" his nature--a decision that would help lead to his suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. (In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II would finally grant Turing a posthumous pardon for his crimes.)

Having just finished reading Walter Issacson's "The Innovators," his best-selling account of technological genius over the centuries that included Turing in its tales of the development of the computer, I was hoping that "The Imitation Game" would give full justice to Turing's complicated story and personality. However, presumably in an effort to make things more palatable to the average moviegoer, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum have smoothed a lot of things out and while these touches may indeed serve to make the narrative more accessible, you can't help but feel that something has been lost in the process. For example, although we get plenty of examples of Turing's anti-social and Asperger-like inability to connect with most of the people around him, we never quite get a sense of how his intellect really ticks and how he was able to make connections in that regard that others could not see. I also take issue with the vague way in which the film handles Turing's sexuality--instead of dealing with it in a head-on manner, it deals with it in an especially circumspect manner (and we never seen him so much as kiss another man) that winds up lessening the impact of the final scenes. The film also weaves in scenes from Turing's childhood in which we see the early days of his peculiar behavior and his fondness for puzzles and codes, none of which are especially edifying.

And yet, while "The Imitation Game" may not fully work as a biopic, it does still have enough going for it to recommend it. As a thriller, it does work as Tyldum manages to generate a decent of amount of tension regarding the race to get the machine up and running, even after the discovery that there may be a mole in the Bletchley Park group, that is all the more impressive considering that the outcome should be well-known to anyone buying a ticket. There are also a lot of very good performances to be had as well. I know that Benedict Cumberbatch has amassed a big cult following over the last few years and while I have not exactly been on that boat myself--he too often comes across as too cool and stand-offish for my tastes--I must concede that he is an excellent choice to play Turing and his performance actually helps to fill a lot of the emotional blanks left by the screenplay. As Joan, Keira Knightley gives one of her best performances in a long time and she and Cumberbatch make for a charmingly awkward couple in their meeting of the minds. Heavy du jour Mark Strong also makes a strong impression as the intelligence agent standing in the shadows of the Bletchley Park project--he may not exactly know all the details of what is going on but he is quick to figure out the importance of what is happening and how it can be used in the name of national defense.

"The Imitation Game" is one of those films that is good enough to recommend but flawed enough to make you wish that it had turned out better than it did. Even though it doesn't quite add up in terms of human drama, the performances are strong enough to make it work and those who have virtually no working knowledge of the subject may find it to be an eye-opening experience. Others may find the film may be nothing more than a well-tuned machine but it has just enough humanity at its center to make it worth a look.

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originally posted: 12/12/14 08:00:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2014 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Denver Film Festival For more in the 2014 Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2014 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 San Diego Film Festival For more in the 2014 San Diego Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/22/15 Bert This site needs to be edited for inappropriate comments 5 stars
2/04/15 The Big D Fine British drama with powerful historical background! 5 stars
1/17/15 helen bradley-jones Benedict Cumberbatch deserves to Best Actor award 5 stars
12/14/14 teddy crescendo Alan Turing was a woofter, the bloody dirty Limey fairy 1 stars
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  28-Nov-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 31-Mar-2015


  DVD: 31-Mar-2015

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