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The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch Amazes in Chilly, Cerebral, Cliched Biopic (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 27, 2014 | Add Comments

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) creates a machine to stop a deadly Enigma machine

The Imitation Game, Morten Tydlum’s chilly, cerebral new film, is about one of history’s greatest enigmas. At first glance, the film is puzzling, too. Structurally, Tydlum’s film is a combination of the typical biopic, with revealing flashbacks and character cliches, and something more structurally paradoxical and politically progressive. It opens in 1951, as police investigate the house of British mathematician/computer-scientist Alan Turing, who’s recently been robbed. We then skip back a few years, to Turing’s job interview with the no-nonsense commander of group of codebreakers hoping to solve Enigma, a deadly Nazi machine. Turing’s personality becomes immediately clear: he’s prodigiously brilliant and blazingly confident, but his machine-like intellect lacks any basic understanding of humor and social norms.

Nonetheless, Turing wins the job and is soon seen frustrating his colleagues, including the prickly Hugh (Stephen Goode), who toils away at breaking the code while he builds Christopher, a mysterious early-computer that may offer the only chance of solving Enigma. But time is running out, and Turing’s big dreams are ruined when authorities shut down his dream projet. Not one to be thwarted so easily, he convinces his team and his commanders to give him one month to crack the code of Enigma and prove the 100,000 pounds poured into Christopher were worth it. Turing and his team, along with a new code-breaker, Joan (Keira Knightley), work against time and authority to stop the war. But there’s more to the man than sheer mathematical genius; his romantic relationship with Joan masks his closeted homosexuality. For Turing, keeping his colleagues on speaking terms and his sexuality secret is as much a challenge as winning the war.

At The Imitation Game‘s center lies Benedict Cumberbatch’s poised, posh lead performance. With his perfectly combed wisps of hair, frighteningly focused green eyes, and obsessive, stammering voice,  he’s captures the brainy, unstoppable intelligence and oblivious social awkwardness of a misunderstood genius. He’s adept at code-cracking, but irony confuses him. And if he has a chance of achieving greatness, why be kind to colleagues? Cumberbatch gets it all right: his pin-point braininess; his unstoppable perfectionism; his incompatibility with coworkers; his closeted sexuality. This is a flawed film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone giving a more perfect Turing performance.

Turing works with a team of several codebreakers, but director Morten Tydlum only attempts to distinguish one: Joan Clarke, played with surprising strength and compassion by Keira Knightley. Instead of playing the oblivious one-note love interest, Knightley matches Cumberbatch’s intelligence but has the humanity he lacks. Knightley proves she’s capable of emotional depth we haven’t seen from her before, the kind missing from the rest of the supporting cast.

Director Morten Tydlum has been directing film and television for two decades, and he capably mixes elements of the biopic, the thriller, the period piece, and the war movie to create a tension-filled, emotionally-complex character piece. Working with cinematographer Oscar Faura, he gives the film crisp, attractive, but rarely noteworthy Downton Abbey-like visuals (Downtown‘s Allen Leech adds to the vibe). For a period-film, Tydlum’s one is fairly progressive, particularly in it’s frank acceptance of homosexuality, and as historical drama, it’s never less than fascinating. The film’s framing device, while initially confusing, makes for an intriguing opening, and the scenes of code-cracking have an illuminating scientific seriousness missing from this fall’s other math-genius period-piece The Theory of Everything. For the average holiday filmgoer, unfamiliar with the story, The Imitation Game will more than suffice. But Alan Turing, with his intellect, social skills, work ethic, and sexuality, was a singular man at odds with the times. This is a film, fine though it may be, that is at times frustratingly adherent to the biopic in hypocritical ways; such an unusual man deserves a more unusual film. Imagine if Tydlum had gone darker and deeper (Turing’s suicide is mentioned as an after-note), and deployed his visuals to go further inside the man. Cumberbatch’s performance would fit nicely into such a murky psychological tragedy, but a director with more filmmaking sophistication would be appreciated.

Joan (Keira Knightley) and Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) hide their secrets in The Imitation GameInstead, we’re left with a riveting, informative, respectably crafted historical drama that ticks all the right boxes for an Oscar-baiting Weinstein crowd-pleaser. Benedict Cumberbatch’s phenomenal performance makes the film worth seeing on it’s own, but the polish-over-artistry filmmaking will leave some hungry for more. The Imitation Game breaks allthe codes to reach audience’s hearts and awards voter’s ballots, but a few puzzles remain unsolved.

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