TIFF 2014 Review: ‘The Imitation Game’

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“The Imitation Game” was what Alan Turing called his test on whether a machine could emulate a human by thinking. We now call it the Turing test. It comes from a paper that Turing published in 1950 while a mathematics professor at Cambridge. At the time of its publication it was not public knowledge, nor even school knowledge, that Turing worked more than a year to build a machine for the British Navy that could unpack the deeply intricate German transmitter attack codes during World War II. 

The Imitation Game is a new drama that uses his test title as a triple entendre, for Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was also a closeted homosexual during a time in Britain when the act was illegal and imprisonable, and because no one could know of his or his team’s involvement in the war. The Imitation Game also tries to be two different types of films — both a thriller and a human rights film — concurrently. And ultimately, although some sections are very strong and Cumberbatch is extraordinary, the film is too soft. It lacks bite on some very meaty subjects. It seems that the “game” that Morten Tyldum’s film is actually imitating is that classy Brit, new-angle-of-WWII King’s Speech plan — on how to win all the golden trophies.

Like SpeechThe Imitation Game comes from a director who’s mostly made television movies. And The Imitation Game moves along swiftly. It has to. Graham Moore’s script covers so much territory. And the territory that Moore presents us is entirely worth exploring: mathematics, repressed sexuality, governmental/archaic bigotry, spies, the first step toward a thinking machine (aka a computer), the calculations of which lives are a necessary loss for the larger gain of victory. And all these ideas are worth entirely more than the safe two-hour run time that will be released. Everything is touched upon on a surface level. 

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I did find it disappointing that Turing’s sexuality, while it may not have been rampant, is treated with multiplex kids gloves. His sexuality is only shown in the formation of a child who’s coming closer to his only friend, Christopher (Jack Bannon). Turing confesses that he’s gay to key members of his team. There is a quick shot of a young man in the 1950s who’s been booked for a homosexual act with Turing.

It’s problematic that a film opens with his interrogation for said sexual act and is bookended by statistics of 49,000 British men who were jailed for Britain’s law blight — but we never have a concept of his sexuality. We don’t want to open the door of we-need-to-see-him-have-sex-with-a-man! when we don’t need that from straight characters — but for such a strong, interesting, important character this arrest (which is introduced at the beginning of the film, following some menacing-sounding Cumberbatch narration) was his career downfall. And we have no concept of how he was hiding his sexuality, how he pursued men, or if he was ultimately, largely detached from desire. But the epilogue heavily focuses on the outcome, without a solid foundation. We want teeth on the subject, not just postscript words.

And the same goes for the live-or-let die calculations, which is reduced to newsreel footage of their successes: Stalingrad and Normandy. But more anguish over the other decisions that we never see, where the team are knowingly letting others die, would’ve also given the film more teeth.

But back to the opening narration: it’s very on-the-nose spy-thriller dialogue. This is a part of the film that succeeds and is a lot of fun. The sequences of the ragtag team coming together (Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leach, Matthew Beard), arguing, sneaking documents, etc. generally have a good working dynamic. Including the British-styled chuckle-comedy of Turing only speaking in literals and thereby missing basic invites to lunch. Another spy plus is the shadow team leader who comes to increasingly trust Turing (a great Mark Strong, who was also magnificent as a spy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which touched on some similar themes as this film, but with more levity and visuals). And most successful within the spy story is the sense that everyone in a war is a cog in a big machine, and chain of command is the most important rule that has to be observed. Which is annoying for humans, but greatly juxtaposed, visually, with the fact that they are imitating that chain of command by building a big machine with spinning cogs. 

Turing was obviously more than a cog in that machine. He greatly changed aspects of our world — both by saving areas from total destruction, and by creating machines that would lead to a computer — and he (and 49,000 others) were wrongfully persecuted. But The Imitation Game puts his life on a conveyer belt. So we understand him less as a human. Other than his connection to his machine.

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Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.