By Kyle G. King. For three seemingly disparate concepts, it appears that a proper game of poker, advertising movie trailers, and international warfare all have something in common. Consider these two basic strategies: you can choose to hold your hand close, giving next to nothing away; or you can strengthen your strategy by giving the opposition (the player to you left, the general public, or say Germany) just a taste of what you may or may not be sitting on (a possible straight, a few seconds of your Oscar-bate scene, or the knowledge of your enemy forces’ next move), gauging their reaction to devise what should or should not come next for the sake of victory. (In these cases: a winning hand for the pot, ticket sales and butts in seats, or… whatever it is wars are fought for.) Each of these concepts may be difficult to undertake, yet The Imitation Game, in one way or another, takes on all three games for the risk of all three victories.
The Imitation Game is a debut for both Norwegian director Morten Tyldum – his first English speaking film – and for American screenwriter Graham Moore – his first feature length script. The film, which Moore adapted from Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, is about the legendary British mathematician and his life and work as a codebreaker during World War II: Turing and his small team of fellow cryptographers are allocated the impossible task to “break an unbreakable Nazi code to win the war”, working for Her Majesty’s Government at a military base in Buckinghamshire, South East England.
While poker is never used explicitly within the film, the cast are certainly given a well-dealt hand by Moore and Tyldum, revealing the drama like a riveting game of seven card stud. Plenty of Jacks to be found here, with Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, suave chess champion and project head incumbent, Allen Leech as John Cairncross, a Scottish intelligence officer you can never fully trust, and even Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, who is a breath of earnest sentiment and treated as an equal mind in an overtly misogynistic time and place. A few Kings are also dealt, with Charles Dance as Commander Denniston, the man bestowed the task of assembling the team of codebreakers (though he’s not too happy about it), Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, maverick director of MI-6, and even an offscreen appearance from Winston Churchill himself. But the Ace high card in this loaded deck is without a doubt Benedict Cumberbatch as the anomalous Alan Turing.
It is not too far a departure from his Sherlock of the BBC, but Imitation finds Cumberbatch slightly more tortured and downtrodden, compromised by the film’s oppressive era and country. Cumberbatch is nobly supported by youngster Alex Lawther as the prep-school aged Turing, who displays far more angst than the comparatively well-adjusted adult Turing, giving a somewhat embellished perspective into the formative years of the genius’ life. Along with a non-linear narrative of flashbacks and flashforwards, Moore manages to present a testament to a multidimensional and unconventional war hero, while simultaneously setting the foundation onto which the talented actor may work.
Sadly, Moore’s screenplay doesn’t feel formidable enough for such apparent talent, causing Tyldum’s story to nearly implode. While there is certainly praise to be given to a war movie than can operate without any firepower, still too much time and attention is spent on hammy stock war footage and Hollywood cliches. (See the trailer for the nauseating exchanges from both Joan – “…you said to do it in under six…” – and Hugh – “…if you fire Alan then you’ll have to fire me.”)
When the film crafts an intelligent and alternate perspective of war strategy (beyond that of big guns and crafty soldiers), the film truly succeeds: Commander Denniston dictates to Turing early on that winning a war takes “order, discipline and chain of command,” but it is the opposing notions that Turing embodies that made him a war hero. His eccentric nature is praised as visionary during wartime, but he is chastised as “indecent” in the bigoted views of 1940’s British law. That Turing shirks authority and traditional methods enables him to craft the machine that arguably shortens the war, but that in turn puts him under the watchful eye of the authorities. He’s the bureaucratic “renegade cop” of mid-twentieth century England.
The Imitation Game always looks beautiful (alongside its especially attractive cast) and effectively inspires surprising chuckles as does drama-drenched thrills, but that drama occasionally grows formulaic and tired. The non-linear storytelling that works for the sake of Turing’s complexity is initially a bit jarring and leads to a difficulty in establishing time, tone, and pace within the first act. What is never lost, however, is an appreciation for wartime Britain and the all-around splendid performances fitting for the impending awards season.
Control, secrets, and manipulation are all important tactics to master in order to win the pot at poker, they equally serve any war general or filmmaker well. These characteristics came natural to Alan Turing, paradoxically in reality and through Cumberbatch’s performance, which effectively makes The Imitation Game a film naturally suited for the high stakes against it. The Imitation Game gives Turing far more respect than the British Royal Family ever did. And while Benedict Cumberbatch is not a simple name to pronounce, with a performance like this we’d better get used to rectifying that.