Biopics are slippery fish. The endeavor of encapsulating an entire human life, with all its complexities, side-trips and unknowable inner turmoil, into a 2-hour piece of entertainment presents a near-impossible challenge. Approaches ranging from the “day in the life” method to the sweeping scope of a Hollywood epic offer countless ways of distilling exactly what it is that makes one man or woman’s story so compelling, so essential to tell.
So let me say right up front that The Imitation Game is not a biopic. While its subject is arguably Alan Turing – the genius who cracked the Axis “Enigma Machine” code and hastened the end of World War 2 – the film is much more concerned with the mechanics of war than it is with cracking the code of Turing himself. It’s a handsome enough film, featuring strong performances amidst comfortable period furnishings and a serviceable score, but it is not the deep-dive into this brilliant mind that many of us had been hoping for.
I say “had been” because many gave up on this film months ago due to early suspicions that Game would “straightwash” Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) – in life a gay man – by romanticizing his platonic relationship with colleague Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). These suspicions were thankfully unfounded, as the film does nothing of the sort. More recent news that the film fabricates a relationship between Turing and a colleague who is a Soviet spy was even more troubling – and yes, the film does briefly suggest that Turing allows himself to be blackmailed into silence for fear of being outed as gay (which was a criminal offense at the time in Britain). The blackmailing lasts all of three minutes and is a bit of a red herring, but it still discredits Turing unnecessarily, leaving a bad taste in one’s mouth and pointing to the film’s bigger problem.
The Imitation Game has no idea what to do with Alan Turing. He’s a cypher from start to finish, and the resulting film – while perfectly engaging and interesting enough – is oddly unmoving. We’re talking about the life of a man who arguably saved millions of lives and was then chemically castrated by the British government because of whom he slept with. This should be incendiary, but instead is presented with a whimper. Even an earnest, committed performance by Cumberbatch can’t course-correct a fundamental flaw in the film’s approach.
Part of the problem is that we never learn who Alan Turing is. We know nothing about his family, his childhood, or really anything about his life before age 26 except that he was the victim of bullying at boarding school and briefly fell chastely in love with a fellow student. (It is never made clear whether the boy, Christopher, loved him back.) Instead, we meet Turing as an offish, humorless man with no social skills and who shows clear signs of undiagnosed mental illness. We never meet the man behind the machine – never learn what kind of person was screaming to tear out from underneath that locked-down exterior and oppressive societal norms. Even a glimpse or two could have lent the film the emotional stakes that it would have needed to succeed.
As it is, we spend half of the movie watching Alan try to build his code-breaking machine (he names it Christopher), and the second half watching everyone watching the machine whirr and click. It’s amazing that this is even remotely entertaining, but it is – probably due, in part, to quite a bit of unexpected humor, much of it provided winkingly by Matthew Goode (as Turing’s dapper colleague, Hugh), Charles Dance (as Turing’s unamused commanding officer) and Mark Strong (as a mysterious member of MI:6 always lingering in doorways).
I don’t want to discount the things that the film does right. It takes a firm stance that the government’s treatment of Turing – and of all gay men persecuted under the law – was disgusting and shameful. But as delivered at the tail end of a quaint and rather stuffy spy thriller, this indictment hasn’t near the impact that it should. The codebreaking scenes and various tests and puzzles can be quite thrilling, if you’re into that kind of thing. (I am.) And though her character is a bit all over the place, Knightley does beautiful work as a fiercely intelligent young woman apron-strung into a life that no longer satisfies her.
Although many of the beats of the film are rooted in fabricated drama, they do at least keep the story bouncing along at a decent by-the-numbers clip. But why did the filmmakers not trust that Turing’s life was interesting enough on its own and decide that it needed dressing up as a spy caper? Wasn’t there enough inherent drama in his offscreen life to build a satisfying narrative? Until someone comes along and tries to solve the puzzle that is Turing we’ll never know.
In the meantime, The Imitation Game is a watchable miscalculation.