Benedict Cumberbatch fall movies

The Imitation Game Review: Please Embrace the Cinematic Medium

Friday, December 19, 2014 Rob Samuelson

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum
Writer: Graham Moore, Andrew Hodges (from his book)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech

Stories have themes. They can be intended or not, perhaps accidents only noticed long after the creators have sent their work into the ether of public discourse. What determines the stories' cultural worth is the way in which the creators go about exploring and examining them. How do they use their chosen medium as a vehicle to deliver their story? Do they understand the strengths and weaknesses of that medium, and of the story? Does the story fit the medium, or are other considerations – the ability to make the greatest amount of money, most likely – the cause of it being shoehorned into a storytelling delivery service that might not serve it right?

The Imitation Game is a moving story that improperly uses its medium. It's a good movie derailed by a misunderstanding of what makes great movies. It could easily be a great book, likely the one written by Andrew Hodges that inspired this adaptation. It could make for a great television miniseries, allowing the weight of the horrendous decisions made by the principal characters to have space to breathe. But mostly, it would make for a terrific stage play. But as it stands, it stumbles over itself repeatedly to reach moderate heights, when far greater ones are within its reach. And that's a shame, because it has so many wonderful ingredients.

Its largest strength is its lead actor. Benedict Cumberbatch, as mathematician Alan Turing, takes a different tack from his portrayal of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes, and creates a man so rational, pragmatic, and blunt so as to render himself almost wholly incapable of meaningful human interaction. He sees everything as a problem to be solved and he commits himself to work them out with tenacity and a brusque disregard for others, alienating himself from people who are uniquely equipped to help him get to his end goal, cracking Enigma, the Nazi communication code and winning World War II for the Allies.

But The Imitation Game doesn't have enough faith in itself as a visual piece of storytelling or in Cumberbatch to let the audience understand for themselves what was depicted in the previous paragraph. It enlists Keira Knightley, as Joan Clarke, Turing's onetime fiancée and coworker during WWII, to the thankless task of explaining in no uncertain terms that Turing must learn to be kinder to his coworkers so they will help him with his project to build the code-cracking machine, which happens to be the world's first computer. Clarke is a fascinating, important historical figure herself, and when uncoupled from the chore of telling the audience exactly what to think, Knightley shows emotional resolve to break free from what society says she is allowed to be. But again, repeated lines about how those that the society at large expects the least from can do the greatest things take a sledgehammer to the point that is already clear. Ditto ideas about how violence is a fleeting good feeling and the inherent unfairness of anti-homosexuality laws. When these overly inelegant thematic explanations are tied with exposition as to how the Enigma code works and how Turing and company plan to tackle the problem, the movie slows to a slog.

Luckily, director Morten Tyldum seems to recognize the wealth of talent he has on his hands midway through The Imitation Game's runtime. The dual rule of thematic explanation and exposition both fade as the film moves forward, and its newfound relaxation contributes to a far better second half. This allows for more purely visual content to seep through the tedium of offices and corridors where most of the film takes place, with glimpses of WWII battles and the countryside runs Turing goes on to clear his head, showing both the stakes of the work at hand and the ways these stressed characters look to relieve themselves from those stakes. If only Tyldum had felt this confidence in his story and medium from the start, then The Imitation Game might be one for the pantheon, or at least some best of 2014 lists.

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