Fact & Fiction: The Imitation Game (2014)

The Penthouse cinema

There’s a wonderful cinema & cafe called The Penthouse in the Brooklyn suburb of Wellington. It’s small, charming, sells delicious treats, has a good selection of films, and sells movie tickets for $10 every Tuesday — a price that seems, well, normal to us! We’ve partaken of their Tuesday special not once, not twice, but three times, seeing Interstellar (meh), Love is Strange (lovely), and The Imitation Game, respectively.

The Imitation Game - computer

As you might have heard, The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and, to a lesser extent, Keira Knightly and a couple of guys from Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. It really is Cumberbatch’s show, but not in the obnoxious way that Oscar- and Golden Globe-attracting lead roles tend to be (see: Erin Brockovich, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Milk, Blue Jasmine, Lincoln, The Queen, etc., etc.). It could have easily become overwrought, but the film, and Cumberbatch, is thankfully restrained enough to prevent that from happening.

Alan Turing, whom Cumberbatch portrays, is widely considered the father of computer science. A mathematics prodigy, with a genius for cryptology, Turing had an illustrious academic career at Cambridge, Princeton, and The National Physical Laboratory before he began working for the British government at the Government Code & Cypher School during WWII. There, he and a team of cryptanalysts were tasked with breaking the Enigma Code, which the German army used to encipher all of its communications. Old-fashioned decoding methods proved insufficient to the challenge, and Turing, recognizing that it was impossible for humans to physically solve Enigma themselves, began to construct a machine that could break the Enigma code. Eventually, of course, the brilliant mathematician found success.

The Imitation Game - struggle

The movie depicts these developments, but many embellishments are added for the purpose of dramatization. Having little knowledge of Turing’s personal life, it’s difficult for me to say which elements were exaggerated, and which were consistent with Alan Turing: The Enigma, the biography on which the film was based (though, of course, the biography could have been embellished as well). For example, while it is true that Turing had a friendly/romantic(?) relationship with fellow pupil Christopher Morcom while attending the Sherborne School, at the time of Christopher’s death from bovine tuberculosis, Turing was 18, not ten or twelve as depicted in the film. This changes the nature, and significance, of the relationship substantially. After discovering this discrepancy from a quick glance at Wikipedia, I began to question many of the film’s plot developments. Was Turing bullied mercilessly at school? Were his social skills so underdeveloped that he presented as autistic? Did he really discover a Soviet spy working alongside the other cryptanalysts at the Government Code & Cypher School? Was he widely hated by his coworkers, and by his immediate superior, and constantly threatened with dismissal if his codebreaking machine didn’t work?

The Imitation Game - post hormonal injections

The most common criticism I’ve seen of the film, though, is not its myriad questionable historical assumptions, but the depiction of Turing’s homosexuality. Many have complained that too little attention was given to the challenges Turing faced, and that the British government wasn’t condemned strongly enough for charging Turing with indecency (i.e., homosexuality) in 1952, mandating that he undergo hormonal “treatment,” and revoking his security clearance — culminating in Turing’s alleged suicide the following year.  The film ends, though, immediately after the indecency charge and subsequent estrogen injections, with a reeling and miserable Alan Turing desperate to hold onto the shreds of his former life. The epilogue describes Turing’s suicide, explicitly indicts the British government, and further magnifies the egregiousness of the offense by reminding the audience, yet again, of the millions of lives Turing saved during WWII by cracking the Enigma Code. It’s not as though Turing’s sexuality is disguised until the last moment, either. Throughout the film, Turing’s homosexuality figures prominently, affecting his relationship with his fiancee, his coworkers at the Government Code & Cypher School, and his ill-fated school friend. Overall, I felt that the film did a fairly good job balancing Turing’s mathematical genius with his forcibly repressed sexuality, the two things for which he is remembered most. To focus too heavily on either aspect would have been a discredit to Turing himself, as it is certainly possible for someone to simultaneously be a mathematical pioneer and an unwitting sexual martyr.

The Imitation Game - as close as the war gets

Though the film relies, at times, on predictability to get its messages across; although Keira Knightly’s acting is much better in the first half of the film than the second; and despite the borderline nauseating refrain “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine,” The Imitation Game is still, on the whole, a quality film. It’s refreshing to see a movie about WWII in which WWII is barely featured — in fact, apart from a few clips of obligate historical footage and a handful of generic battle sequences, the realities of the battlefield, as it were, are surprisingly absent from the film.  In a way, I wish they had been entirely absent, as the inclusion of the typical WWII footage seemed somewhat forced. But although those exclusions might have created a more cohesive film, I can imagine that it would call the motivations of its protagonist into question — which would be uncomfortable, to say the least.

The Imitation Game - Cumberbatch

The movie’s primary strength, however, is indubitably the fine performance that Benedict Cumberbatch delivers. He inhabits a different and unusual style of acting; that is to say, it seems as though he isn’t acting at all. While most screen actors tend to exaggerate their voices, movements, and facial expressions so as to better convey emotion to the camera, Cumberbatch seems to talk naturally, move naturally. Perhaps he is one of the first examples of a new style of acting, a style that takes into account the increased resolution, improved lighting, and ever-increasing camera sophistication that produces the hyperreal cinematic experience we as audiences have come to expect. Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing Cumberbatch in more movies in the future.

Overall, though The Imitation Game is not a fraction as groundbreaking as the man who inspired it, it’s a decent film, with a clear and strong message, and I enjoyed it very much. Compared to other biopics, it veers toward the safer side; its peers are The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything, not Capote or Lawrence of Arabia. If anything, it’s served as another catalyst for Benedict Cumberbatch’s meteoric career, and there are far worse actors, and worse movies, to receive the kind of attention that The Imitation Game has.

Overall grade: B

Photo credits: Brooklyn Penthouse Cinema copyright P J Armitage. Film stills copyright Jack English/Blackbear Pictures. 

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13 thoughts on “Fact & Fiction: The Imitation Game (2014)

  1. This just opened in theatres here in Korea, and it’s on our list to see this week. On a side note, I always wonder if Benedict Cumberbatch is his real name. It can’t possibly be…can it?? 😉

  2. “Compared to other biopics, it veers toward the safer side; its peers are The King’s Speech and The Theory of Everything, not Capote or Lawrence of Arabia.”

    Finally got to see this the other day, and this just about sums up how I felt–really enjoyed it, but didn’t think it was unforgettable the way some biopics are (but then, I have a huge soft spot for Lawrence of Arabia, questionable racial politics aside). I am a little surprised/disappointed that the movie has been criticized for its treatment of Turing’s sexuality, though, since as you said, it’s hardly covered up. Not knowing a ton about Turing, I actually was impressed by how nuanced the treatment was.

    1. Well, I’m glad we’re in agreement! I’m also sorry that it took me over 2 weeks to respond to your comment. I made keeping up with blog comments & posts one of my New Year’s resolutions, and like all good resolutions, I’ve repeatedly broken it.
      To be honest, I’m glad that the movie wasn’t primarily about Turing’s sexuality. It was an aspect of his life, not the entirety of it.

  3. I agree that the movie managed to maintain a balance even if people want there to be more of one aspect or another. Too many movies embellish one side to the point of caricature and detract from the actual message or meaning.

    1. Yes, we basically made the same point! I didn’t realize that human rights groups had had to petition the British government for Turing’s pardon, though. It would have been so easy to add another couple of sentences to the epilogue explaining that.

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