On ‘The Imitation Game’

“Sometimes it is the very people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

The above line is a lovely bit of inspirational sentiment. I ask you to say it aloud to yourself. Now, imagine that line used by an actor in a movie as a bit of dialogue. It’s clunky. Even in the sonorous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game,” the line sounds like someone banging a gong rather than speaking; it thuds loudly and is exposed as sentimental claptrap.

Too much of writer/director Morten Tyldum’s take on the life of legendary mathematician Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” lands with the same kind of thud. This conventional biopic about a highly unconventional man spends a great deal of time playing at being a military thriller when it should have been a subversive, rebellious story of a complicated and tragic anti-hero.

The failure of “The Imitation Game”cannot be laid at the feet of star Benedict Cumberbatch, who enlivens Alan Turing with great vigor and offbeat tics that are fitting with the picture of a man few people liked or understood. Cumberbatch could very well have given us the Turing biopic the world needs. “The Imitation Game” just simply is not it.

The movie skirts Turing’s life. We see him as a World War II codebreaker, who personally earned the approval of Winston Churchill himself to lead England’s effort in breaking Enigma. We flash back to one of Turing’s formative relationships as a closeted homosexual, and flash forward to Turing’s arrest for indecency that eventually led to his alleged suicide. There is a rich amount of story to tell here. Sadly, director Tyldum gets caught up in only the most audience-friendly aspect: World War II.

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch

The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch

Yes, what Turing did during the war is a remarkable and important piece of history. In short order, Turing created a machine that won World War II by cracking Germany’s legendary Enigma machine. And he invented what would come to be the very first computer. Turing was the first to create a machine which, independently of human manipulation, solved equations and produced data. It’s completely astounding. Yet, in “The Imitation Game,” it is reduced to the function of a thriller plot involving double agents and MI6.

The greatest injustice of “The Imitation Game” is saved for Turing’s personal life. Turing was a homosexual in England when homosexuals were persecuted. In 1954 Turing was arrested for indecency after a male prostitute admitted to having been with Turing and attempted to rob Turing’s home. Turing was forced to agree to chemical castration to avoid jail time. The subsequent treatment is said to have led to his depression and eventual suicide.

Turing’s death is a grotesque tragedy. But the film tosses it off in the final minutes with barely a comment. Why? My feeling is that the filmmakers and the studio lack conviction and fortitude. The thriller stuff, the World War II heroism and Sheldon Cooper-esque comedy about Turing’s lack of social skills were an easier sell to a mass audience than the far bleaker but more interesting tragedy of Turing’s death.

In the end, “The Imitation Game” takes the easy way out. The filmmakers settle for the most audience-friendly take on Turing, depicting his homosexuality and tragic death as inconvenient plot points on the way to the box office. What a shame. Here’s hoping we get the Turing movie we deserve someday instead of this pale “Imitation.”

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