FilmReview

The Game is Afoot: Benedict Cumberbatch Soars in World War Two Biopic ‘The Imitation Game’

Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game opens with the almost exact same line as Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige: “Are you watching closely?” While Nolan’s 2006 magic box was a puzzle in and of itself, The Imitation Game has a different goal in mind – to make its protagonist a cypher and frame him in what would be a very routine tale of good old-fashioned know-how, if not for the tragic realities imposed upon this story by just who Alan Turing actually was, and how he was treated because of it. Despite using a nonlinear narrative structure that surrounds Turing’s key discovery in 1942, this is not a complex film, but it has plenty of complexity in its subject to make up for it.

Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not the type of person about which most World War II films are made. As he is stuttering, deadpan, and stiflingly neurotic, one cannot possibly imagine him taking part in any sort of combat. His sole qualification to interview for the top secret Cypher School at Bletchley Park is, in his own words, “I like to play games.”This earns the immediate skepticism of Commander Alastair Denniston (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) and the ire of his co-workers (Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard respectively), but he still manages to take control of his team through clever tactics and exploiting military hierarchy. These are only the first of many moments within the film where it seems to be headed down the “misunderstood maverick genius rises to the top” road, but the film (taking cues from reality) imposes enough effective roadblocks in his way that we never feel the screenplay cheats on its way to Turing’s successes. His logic is never flawless, and the one “eureka” moment the film grants him is marvelously cathartic because of it.

Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch and Allen Leech in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.
Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch and Allen Leech in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

On paper, Cumberbatch may seem like lazy casting for a role like this. He has effectively cornered the market on intelligent super geniuses in this hemisphere, but there is something about his performance here that strikes a more human chord than he did as either Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness or Sherlock Holmes on Sherlock. Cumberbatch is known for, even in his niche arthouse roles (see Parade’s End), playing characters that have a strong moral fiber and dominate every scene. Alan Turing is not that kind of a genius. His intellectual confidence is completely undermined (at least in appearance) by his crippling social awkwardness. In a key flashback scene, a younger Turing points out that cryptanalysis is as similar to him as deciphering the language people speak every day. It is in the little observations like this that make Turing feel just slightly out of place in every scene, and make the character stand tall without Cumberbatch having to oversell his acting chops every moment he’s on screen.

As mentioned earlier, the narrative is divided into three distinct parts. The primary of these concerns Alan Turing’s involvement during WWII, where he and his team were tasked with breaking the unbreakable “Enigma Code” used by the Nazis to disguise their radio communications. This part takes up most of the film’s running time, but no less important are the two stories framing it, a flashback and a flashforward. The flashback follows Turing’s time in school, and while for the vast majority of the film it doesn’t hold the same weight as the others, it features a talented ensemble of young actors, one of whom (Alex Lawther) manages to uncannily adopt the same awkward mannerisms and speech patterns of Cumberbatch’s older version so that, incredibly, they feel like the exact same character. The flashforward concerns how Turing’s involvement with the war, long hidden by British Intelligence, is unearthed by detectives investigating Turing for quite unrelated (and tragically flawed) reasons. The two peripheral narratives are compelling and not detracting from the core of the story as they each bring a piece to the puzzle that the other is lacking.

Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.
Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game. Photo Credit: Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

There are many weaknesses to be found throughout the course of this film, however. The story takes a while to get going, only gaining confidence in its character-driven moments several scenes into its second act. Additionally, there are times it seems the director, along with his editor (Oscar winner William Goldenberg) was uncomfortable with focusing solely on the coldly intellectual side of the war, choosing to cut to brief reenactments of bombings, air raids, and stock footage of the same. All of this stuff is pretty unconvincing, not only because of low-budget CGI, but because of how effectively the dramatic moments land when the war remains a looming unseen presence. WWII has been portrayed so thoroughly by other films that it seemed like a cheat to cut away from the unique perspective this film brings to the table.

All things considered, The Imitation Game is not a perfect movie, but it is a quite successful imitation of one.

Overall Grade: B+

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