Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Imitation Game Movie Review

Maybe I’m just not easily impressed anymore. Maybe it’s because I rarely see any of the really bad movies anymore and so by comparison, the stuff that is really good seems so ordinary. The Imitation Game is supposed to be one of the year’s best movies, but it is so utterly conventional, I just found it sort of dull. This is the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped decode the messages churned out by Enigma, the Nazis’ communication device, which should be a ripe subject for a fascinating story. The machine Turing developed to break the code laid the foundation for modern computing.

The screenplay by Graham Moore was adapted from Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma. I’m all for creative license in fact-based movies, but some of the choices made seem out of bounds in terms of striking a fair balance between the historical facts and crafting a dramatic story. Turing is depicted as so socially stilted, and incapable of forming friendships or working well with others that it truly is unbelievable, as in I really couldn’t believe Turing as a character. It seems Turing really did have several eccentricities (as most geniuses do), but he’s only a couple steps removed from Rain Man in The Imitation Game.

It appears most of the major changes that Moore made are in service of unnecessary manufactured drama and painting Turing as an absolutely indispensible presence at Bletchley Park, the station for military intelligence where Turing and his team did their work. Moore’s screenplay makes it seem as if Turing developed the machine from scratch on his own when in fact his machine was an improvement on a pre-existing Polish decoding machine. All this does is unfairly discount the work of other people in the history of breaking Enigma. His colleagues, led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), are depicted as disliking Turing and not valuing him until the dramatically appropriate moment when their commanding officer (Charles Dance), who has stood in opposition to Turing, tries to fire him. Suddenly his colleagues stand up for him in that cinematic “if he goes, we go” kind of way. This is the old tortured genius whom no one understand ploy. It’s tired and played-out and has no business in this story.

Finally there’s the issue of Turing’s homosexuality, which is so heavily downplayed that the most significant relationship Turing has in the movie is with his colleague Jon Clarke (Keira Knightley) – a woman! There is more intimacy shown in their friendship than in any other interaction he has. For a movie that wants to be at least partially about the tragedy of a man being prosecuted for his sexuality in spite of a tremendous contribution to the war effort, it is strangely sexless. Were it not for flashbacks to his childhood and his romantic friendship with a boy at school, you would have little sense of his sexuality. In 2014, when the country is steadily moving toward general acceptance of homosexuality, we see that Hollywood still isn’t entirely comfortable putting it into a mainstream film. Hollywood apparently hasn’t come very far since Philadelphia, a movie about a gay man that never depicts any intimacy between the hero and his lover.

I could forgive The Imitation Game this fault if it didn’t close the story with Turing’s conviction for indecency in 1952 and his chemical castration in lieu of a prison sentence. At the end of the film, the titles inform us of the number of men convicted under indecency laws in Britain through the 1960s. Suddenly I had to reassess the movie director Morten Tyldum was trying to make. Wait, this wasn’t about breaking the Enigma machine and winning the war? The agenda was actually a condemnation of Britain’s intolerance toward homosexuality? If that’s what Tyldum and Moore were driving at throughout the film, they might have done a better job developing Turing as a gay character rather than have him flirting with a pretty actress hired to portray the rather plain looking Ms. Clarke. If their point is that Britain did a disservice to a man who should have been lauded as a national hero, then a more interesting film might have focused on the post-war years of his life leading up to his conviction.

This is just part and parcel of Hollywood’s lack of faith. Everyone can pat themselves on the back for supporting and awarding a film on an important subject. They can go to bed telling themselves that they are furthering the cause for gay rights, but this is as much an honest film about attitudes toward homosexuality as Crash was about racism. And that abomination won the Best Picture Oscar!

But conventionality always wins which is why Moore included a subplot involving a Soviet spy at Bletchley, for which there is no evidence. Why did this movie need that additional thriller element? It artificially elevates the importance of Turing’s homosexuality when he discovers the spy’s identity, a man who threatens to expose Turing’s secret if he turns him in.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor who has given far better performances. I think his performance suffers from bad direction and writing more than poor choices by the actor. How much could he do with this fake Aspberger’s character he’s been given? I’ve also enjoyed Keira Knightley more in past movies, but she trots out the tightly strained jaw a few too many times. She remains unconvincing as a fellow mathematics genius. Knightley was poorly cast and doesn’t possess the actor’s tools to rescue the character from one-dimensionality.

This is just another in a long line of examples of lazy storytelling on film masquerading as great and important. Tyldum resorts to scenes of Turing running to signify intensity and endurance. Tyldum and Moore want The Imitation Game to be too many things. They want it to be a palatable historical thriller with an important contemporary social message about British society’s treatment of a certain minority group in the past. That could have been worked into the story more elegantly and without making the audience feel like they’d been duped for two hours.

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