Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: "The Imitation Game"

Director: Morten Tyldum
Runtime: 114 minutes

British mathematician Alan Turing completed a Herculean task at the height of World War II as multiple opposing forces closed in on him. Time was of the essence when it came to breaking the Nazi Enigma encoding device. At one point, MI6 operative Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) tells Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that in the time they've had to introduce themselves, three British soldiers have been killed thanks to messages sent using Enigma's seemingly impossible encryption codes. 

And yet despite the massive looming threat of the Third Reich in the background, the story of Turing's crowning achievement has surprisingly little urgency. Director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore rely on too many weary storytelling tropes and framing devices. The Imitation Game is solid, quietly rousing entertainment, but it lacks the sort of polarizing intellectual dynamism that made its subject such a visionary in his field.

Hopping from 1951 (the year of Turing's arrest for homosexual acts) to the early 40s, and even back to Turing's school days, The Imitation Game has quite a bit to juggle in under two hours. To their credit, Tyldum and Moore tell their story smoothly, ensuring that one never gets lost amid the jumps in time. Tyldum's direction is polished, and opens up the scenes so as to keep the film from looking either stagey or like a generic TV movie. Moore's screenplay, adapted from Andrew Hodges' book, has its share of witty exchanges and carefully timed emotional outbursts. To an extent, the Norwegian Mr. Tyldum deserves credit for directing the most downright British movie of the year, with its restrained emotions and real-life-period-piece narrative. 

Everything in The Imitation Game, for better or for worse, has been calibrated to make the film both important and widely accessible. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, the execution here - however pleasurable - is what gets in the way of the film leaving a lasting mark. The scenes set at boarding school and in 1951 each have their own internal arcs, yet by stringing them along with the WW2 story, their impact is muted. They feel like optional subplots even though both (especially the latter) have direct connections to the middle timeline. Rather than work in harmony, the subplots leech off of the WW2 story to the detriment of the entire film. The danger of the war and the possibility that Turing's sexuality may be exposed never feel like terribly pressing matters. There is only one sequence, in which Turing and his team must decide whether to warn a British ship about a U-boat attack, where the required urgency actually materializes. Breaking the Enigma code was not a tidy solution, but the film barely gives one a taste of this crucial and fascinating angle.

The cast is the real draw here, and even the actors with underwritten roles are at least fully engaged with the material. Cumberbatch is an ideal fit for Turing's isolated, anti-social genius mindset. Though there are similarities with his character on Sherlock, the actor's work here is characterized by an understated wit and a less abrasive frankness in his dealings with co-workers. When Turing tells his commanding office that his teammates will only slow him down, it comes from a place of cold objectivity, rather than malice or derision. Cumberbatch's cast members, though often relegated to playing simple types, turn in solid work, with Matthew Goode doing some fine work as Turing's confrontational adversary. Breaking up the boys' club is Keira Knightley as fellow decoder Joan Clarke, who forms the most in depth bond with Turing. Clarke is the one person who sees and understands who Turing is beyond his brilliant mind, and Knightley's scenes with Cumberbatch are easily among the film's best, even if her character doesn't really have her own arc. 

Behind the scenes contributions are all quite strong without overwhelming the story or the actors. Production designer Maria Djurkovic (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) varies the decor of the film's many interiors to lend the imagery subtle, unobtrusive distinctions. The film looks simple, yet elegant, and Alexandre Desplat's understated score gives the story an extra boost of energy. Costumes, meanwhile, communicate the time period without being distracting.

There's no doubt that everything in The Imitation Game looks and sounds right. The underlying problems with structure certainly don't hold the film back as an accessible crowd-pleaser. Instead, the frustration with The Imitation Game isn't that it does something horribly wrong, but that it - like a few other recent films - takes its real life story and turns it into something so by-the-numbers. Tyldum and Moore may have told Turing's story, but in their approach they have failed to capture his spirit.

Grade: B-

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