Although I don’t altogether understand the phenomenon of Bennysnickers Scoopypants, I’ll be the first to admit that the fellow can act. Case in point: his portrayal of Alan Turing—mathematician, cryptanalyst, all-round genius and undercover hero—in The Imitation Game. Cumberbatch’s acting is, in fact, the highlight of the film, which otherwise seems to suffer from a lamentable identity issue. Is it a biopic, lauding a talented and troubled man? A historical film, depicting the cracking of the Enigma code as a significant breakthrough for British intelligence? A thrilleresque drama set during WWII and featuring offhand BBC flourishes? It seems director Morten Tyldum is not quite sure and, hence, neither are we.
Let’s consider the film, firstly, as a biographical piece. While the real Turing was certainly homosexual, The Imitation Game minimises the issue of sexuality to create a new hybrid hero, who also just happens to be autistic. Being homosexual in Britain in the 1940s was, apparently, not quite difficult enough to warrant a full diegesis. The decision could perhaps have been justified if it led to a strong progressive representation for either cause; however, (quelle horreur!) the thesis the film constantly reproduces is that Turing is “not normal”. Hollywood’s intended motivational platitudes (in this case, “sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”) are thereby warped beyond recognition.
Through its characterisation of Turing, the film reads vaguely thus: Turing is rendered an outcast by his sexuality and disability. This means he is a genius who is able to achieve great things, which normal people cannot do. Outcasts can be valued for their brains, but must die alone. It’s an indictment on the film industry that we still commend (see: the Oscars) works with such a jaw-droppingly insensitive worldview. The Imitation Game seeks to redeem this situation by including a few trite facts about past horrific treatment of homosexuals by way of intertitling at the film’s conclusion (as if to suddenly incite viewers to human rights advocacy just as they leave the cinema), but to me it was a weak token gesture of support for issues that need a strong, not diluted, filmic voice.
In considering the film as explicitly historical, the various decades of the 30s to 50s were neatly evoked with costume and mise-en-scene. It is intriguing that the film takes such pains to accurately represent a setting after taking such liberties with its central character. Tyldum produced strange senses of dissonance by using true historical war reels along with reconstructed footage of wartime events, which served as a constant reminder of the then-and-there versus the here-and-now. Some of these montages were effective, and lent a certain flair to the film, but often they recycled tired war tropes such as the streetside newspaper boy, children loaded onto trains, or cups of tea drunk while perched atop piles of rubble.
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On the plus side, The Imitation Game’s cinematography and visual style are crisp and polished, aided by a sympathetic score. Cumberbatch’s interactions with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, looking a lot more dignified than when we last saw him on the small screen) are a joy to behold, and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a token intelligent woman, is somewhat more palatable than usual. The film is perhaps worth seeing on the strength of these performances, but only if you’ve the stomach for enormously patronising representations and Hollywoodised history on a grandiose scale.