|Benedict Cumberbatch in "Imitation Game."|
For the first 50 minutes of a nearly two hour movie, “The Imitation Game” has the qualities we associate with a crackerjack historical thriller, mixing dramatic invention with World War II attitudes in England as it explores the long-hidden role of Alan Turig in saving millions of Allied lives with his innovative machine that broke the Nazi Enigma code.
There is some acceptable fictionalization and character development early on as the aloof anti-social mathematical genius who relishes crosswords more than people displays his knack for offending academic colleagues and the military establishment. The cinematic devices are acceptable because they hold our interest and it’s past time to tell the hidden story of his breakthrough in machine intelligence (today we call that computers) that saved millions of lives.
There was real drama in Turig’s fight to create his brain of dials rather than labor futilely to solve the code line by line before a new encryption flipped in at midnight. Initially, he was not at war against the Nazis as much as the hidebound British military. Any hint of exposing his homosexuality (a continuing plot element) would doom him and his beloved machine to destruction. As it was, his oddball manners did put him in danger of being accused of spying for the Soviets.
Then there is massive fictionalization in how the movie uses Keira Knightley as the unexpected mathematical genius whose mere presences softens Turig and his male colleagues. It is true that society of the era didn’t believe women had the competence to escape the kitchen or thought any camaraderie a sign of sluthood, so Knightley’s plucky British manner and concern about decorum provide a way to humanize Turig – and initially we almost accept the overall fabrications. Frankly, though, despite chauvinistic attitudes, computer explorers even in the 1930s relied on women for mathematical skills. So eventually as weird as the era seems to modern audiences, this plot bridge becomes shaky.
But where the movie really goes awry is in overly concocting eureka moments – that “bulb lights up in the head” that has become a movie cliché. It then concocts a situations to humanize the ethical dilemma (once Enigma was broken, the success had to stay secret to mislead the Germans, which means many innocents would continue to die) and further exaggerates into Shakespearean tragedy the manipulations that did happen – how Turig gets caught up in the spy game, conveyed in stunned looks at the camera and exaggerated moments of betrayal and class arrogance.
Director Morton Tydlum and screenwriter Graham Moore (from a book about Turig) are authentic to the times and manners, but there is a sort of Games of Throne scheming (not a totally random allusion since you’ll spot several actors from HBO’s Games of Throne) in the growing sneers of the upper class, the violence motif and the militaristic mannerisms. The director and screenplay go off the rails to pound the points home about homosexual secrets, human betrayal and the British caste system, overusing the actors to make the larger points.
Which brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch, an excellent actor who has illuminated many films and handled many characterizations over recent years with a technique that usually surprises and engages. But this film relies so heavily on his gifts for robotic aloofness -- with a stutter and a tiny creeping smile to break the coldness -- that he could pretty much retire that method from his repertoire for a decade.
The film need not have signaled so heavily how badly Britain treated its gay population and how oddballs of all stripes were mistreated. The film holds us better with gentler discovery than telling us time and again how to react. It’s not surprising that Cumberbatch couldn’t resist every opportunity to convey that quirkiness, but someone should have called a halt to this side of “The Imitation Game.”
Other notable end of year reviews: Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood, Theory of Relativity, Birdman.