All of us, at some point in our lives, will pretend to be something we’re not. Whether it’s to make our lives easier at work, or to get someone we fancy to notice us, or for some other reason entirely, we’ll act in a manner that intentionally mimics the characteristics of another person (or type of person) that we think will provide the desired level of acceptance.
As the name suggests, The Imitation Game, the latest film by director Morten Tyldum, is an excellent examination of this very human phenomenon, with many of its characters behaving in ways that are contrary to their own natures in order to further their lives.
Sure, the film is ostensibly about the efforts of eccentric genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his team at Bletchley Park to crack the unbreakable Enigma code used by the Nazis and end WWII, but at its core, it’s really about the attempts by Turing, his colleagues (include Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke) and even his code breaking machine itself to imitate other people.
But before we delve any deeper into thematic analysis (for that way lies spoilers), I want to look at the technical side of things first.
This is an extremely well-crafted film, particularly where the performances of the cast are concerned. Cumberbatch is positively brilliant as the prickly yet surprisingly vulnerable Turing, a man whose legacy as one of the most influential figures in the Allied war effort went unsung during his lifetime.
It would be easy to write-off this portrayal as Cumberbatch merely recycling his outstanding work as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock, however if you place the master mathematician and the great detective side-by-side, you’ll see that Cumberbatch has created a pair of vastly different individuals with only superficial similarities.
For whereas his Sherlock is a mixture of anti-social tendencies coupled with the heroic heart of a knight errant, his Turing is equal parts venom and tenderness, a man who regularly incites conflict but abhors violence.
Cumberbatch is provided great support from Knightley, who once again proves that she is an exceptional actress if provided with decent material to work with. As Turing’s colleague and confidant Joan, she is able to radiate intelligence, warmth and strength as needed, and as an audience, we fall in love with her very early on.
The rest of the cast is equally good, particularly Charles Dance in full Tywin Lannister-mode as Turing’s unsympathetic superior Commander Denniston, and Mark Strong as cool as a cucumber MI6 operative Major General Menzies.
Helping the actors out immensely is the sharp screenplay by Graham Moore. Moore has scripted some of the best dialogue in any movie this year, and despite its serious subject matter and period setting, The Imitation Game is surprisingly funny, surprisingly often.
The screenplay also excels at covering a lot of information in less than two hours, and Moore and editor William Goldenberg do a mostly solid job with the non-linear narrative (the flashback sequences can be a little disorienting at times, particularly when the film jumps from the post-War sequences back to the main 1940s setting).
There is also a fine job done of injecting tension into a story that the audience already knows has a happy ending (spoilers: the Allies won WWII), and the film uses the conflict between Turing and Denniston over the direction of the code cracking project to tighten the screws.
More impressively, the filmmakers focus less on the act of cracking the code itself, and more on what the correct course of action is once the code is cracked, given that the moment the Allies show their hand overtly and reveal the code is broken, the Nazis will simply create a new code, making all the work for nothing. As Turing implores his colleagues in a particularly affecting scene, “You must ignore what feels right, and do what is logical.”
The film is nicely shot by cinematographer Oscar Faura, with some clever camera angles chosen to emphasise Turing’s isolation and loneliness when called for. It also sounds great, with an appropriately stirring score by Alexandre Desplat and tension-inducing sound effects courtesy of sound designer Andy Kennedy, especially the sound of Turing’s code breaking machine at work.
If there is a weakness in the film on a technical level, it’s the visual effects used for the few scenes depicting battleships and bombers in combat on the front lines, which are serviceable but not quite seamless. Fortunately, The Imitation Game isn’t a movie with blockbuster aspirations, and a few instances of slightly unconvincing CGI are hardly enough to distract from the major themes of the story.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
As mentioned earlier, the film is ultimately a meditation on mimicry. As becomes apparent very early on, Turing is a closeted gay man, and so must imitate the behaviour of a straight man in order to achieve social acceptance. Joan, an intelligent and independent young woman, must imitate a subservient girl without aspirations beyond a secretarial role, in order for her parents to allow her to work at Bletchley Park.
Together, she and Turing enter into a sham engagement, and though the pair do indeed share a deep platonic love for each other, they are forced to imitate romantic love itself in order to continue leading the lives they wish to live unmolested by outside social forces.
Furthermore, Turing’s code breaking machine continues to evolve (he would later become recognised as one of the fathers of modern computing), improving in its ability to copy human thought. Early on, we see Turing name the machine “Christopher” after his only close friend at school, and when we later find out that the flesh and blood Christopher died at a young age, we realise that Turing is creating a construct which he hopes can imitate his long-dead friend, and relieve him of the unbearable loneliness that his intellect brings.
There are other instances of people pretending to be something they aren’t (the Allies continue to act ignorant even after the code is broken, a Soviet mole at Bletchley Park presents himself as loyal to Britain, and so on), but by far the most terrible instance occurs late in the film, once Turing has been convicted of engaging in homosexual acts.
Faced with the prospect of going to prison, Turing opts to undergo “treatment” for his homosexuality that amounts to chemical castration. In essence, Turing is forced to mimic heterosexuals in so far as his sexual desire for persons of his own gender becomes non-existent, however just as the artificial Christopher cannot ever truly become the dead boy it was created to replace, neither can Turing truly exist as something he is not, and he ultimately commits suicide, adding yet another tally mark to the long list of lives lost as a result of societal pressure to conform, and robbing the world of a bona fide genius in the process.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
The Imitation Game is without doubt one of the finest films of 2014. It features winning performances by a well-directed cast working from a cracking screenplay, and it rightly puts the spotlight on a remarkable achievement by a brilliant man, even as it calls to light the gross injustice wrought upon him, as well as upon all those who are forced to live as something they’re not just to survive.