What makes an Oscar contender? Is it the director, cast, premise, the country it comes from, or studio? In the case of The Imitation Game (out now via. Roadshow), it’s all 5.
Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mathematical genius, who, with a team of fellow code-breakers (including Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley; Hugh Alexander, played by Matthew Goode; and Peter Hilton, played by Matthew Beard), cracked the Enigma code during World War II.
The narrative here seems to be ripe for an incredibly interesting film – make it evident that they’ve broken the code, and the Nazis will just invent another one, placing them back at square one, having to sift through a large amount of messages daily to try decipher it again. Lives and combat plans are on the line, which should make The Imitation Game laden with tension, a nail-biting race against time, but, is instead let down by its desire to be just about as by-the-book as one can get.
This is quite disappointing, because Turing’s story is one that needs to be told. After being an instrumental part in Britain winning WWII, Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, sentenced to chemical castration, before dying in 1954 from a suspected suicide. He was only given a pardon by the Queen two years ago. In the film, however, Turing’s sexuality is tip-toed around, discussed in the safest and softest possible way, as to please the Oscar voters that the film is made for, in unrelated flashbacks and forwards that only serve to soften the dramatic impact. However, this is a notion that we had to consider from the outset when a film was going to be made about Turing. It was unlikely Turing’s relationships and personal life were going to be portrayed accurately, with as much of his relationships outside his friendship with Clarke probably omitted, so what would be better – that it would be told at all, or told in an inaccurate way?
The mediocrity of the film presentation is frustrating, because the craftsmanship here is quite good, and could have definitely resulted in a much better film, well crafted set pieces and all. The performances, as expected, are excellent. Knightley made me wish at times that I was watching a Joan Clarke film instead, because I might be watching something more interesting then, placing much more thought into the character than the script called for. Cumberbatch and his male co-stars are great too, with Mark Strong the standout.
As a result of this, I feel very much the same about The Imitation Game as I do about another British film from last year – Amma Asante’s Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw – it’s an unconventional story told in the most conventional way possible. The framing device is a detective sitting at a table and asking Turing what happened next, and then next, and then after that, and flashbacks from the war and his childhood fade in and out as their narrative hooks are conveniently revealed in the screenplay, before being quickly tidied up with a convenient montage. From the well-known cast to the sympathetic characters whose experiences all allow us to give ourselves a pat on the back, its status as this years ‘prestige British film’ from The Weinstein Company, its one that surely lives up to its status as being reserved a place in the final Best Picture lineup long before the first screening.
It’s an analogy used by many, so I apologise, but it feels like the test that Turing describes in the film – the Imitation Game, a series of questions that one person asks another in order to determine if they are man or machine. The Imitation Game feels like a biopic on autopilot, restrained significantly in terms of style and ambition because of the desire to recreate the wild success of The King’s Speech 4 years ago ($500 mil at the box office can’t be wrong). It’s a well-performed crowdpleaser, but, aside from the pivotal scene, it never had me anticipating what would happen the next time Turing flicked the switch or slipped into a reflection. Why? Because I’d seen it many, many times before, and there was nothing new about it to decipher.