starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear
screenplay by Graham Moore
directed by Morten Tyldum
by Walter Chaw Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing, truly, in Morten Tyldum's better version of A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game. Based on the life of logician and mathematician Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park genius who broke the Enigma code but was later pilloried for his homosexuality, the film is conventional in every way save Cumberbatch, who, frankly, had never particularly appealed to me before now. His Turing is clearly (to a guy in the middle of all this sudden awareness of Autism) somewhere on the Autism spectrum, incapable of building relationships and understanding metaphors, making him the perfect person, in his (mis)understanding of the world, to break codes. All language and every subtlety of human interaction is a puzzle for him, you see; breaking the unbreakable German Enigma cipher is simply another of the same variety. The Imitation Game, however, is crystal clear, lockstep in narrative and exposition and careful to leave no child behind as it explains how Turing and his team of irregulars managed to build the first computer and defeat the Nazi war machine by intercepting its communications. At the end, its message is the same as The Incredibles', though housed in a far more conventional motor: different is good, and you shouldn't criminalize homosexuality, because what if a gay guy is the saviour of the free world and you just chemically-castrated him and caused him to kill himself? As messages go, that's not a tough one to get behind.
The Imitation Game is what it is--the difficult version of it has already been done, and done well, with Darren Aronofsky's Pi. What The Imitation Game is, then, is that movie where breathless reading-glass heroes race from desk to desk, analyzing sheets of numbers and reading off encrypted missives in breathless, almost sexual huffs. It's the one where epiphanies are had at unexpected times, set to an excited orchestra and widened eyes, Marvin Berry-like, to underscore the eurekas. The one where although the conclusion is foregone, it's still carried off in such a way as to bring on the tingle when the moment of truth comes. In the middle of it, Cumberbatch remains affecting and vulnerable, even as the character's ever in danger of slipping into camp. He's a superhero, it's true, but the alien kind orphaned on Earth, trying to build a machine to take him home while the military wants to exploit him and scientists attempt to dissect his brain. In a wonderful moment, more wonderful if true, the picture takes a WarGames twist (the second in a movie this year) and defines the Rosebud of Turing's longing. I almost wonder if The Imitation Game isn't more jagged because Turing as Cumberbatch plays him is so easy to embrace?
Set against him are handsome foil Hugh (Matthew Goode); Denniston (Charles Dance), the commanding officer who doesn't get it; and the brilliant young woman mathematician who must fight against the "decorous" dictates of a sexually-repressive society so as to better save the world, Joan (Keira Knightley). Cut-outs, but inoffensive ones, largely, save for the function of one otherwise marginal lad (Matthew Beard) who spells out the dread cost of war in the film's only genuinely contrived moment. I criticize The Imitation Game for its biopic conventions and safe messaging, but really, I don't condemn it overmuch for them. The picture's motto is a thrice-repeated line about the most amazing things authored by the most unlikely of sources; its reason-for-being is thus this simple manifesto against homogenization. But given that, it did cause me to think about how humans tend towards comfortable gestalt and abhor difference--about how the reduction of variance in our species is perhaps the blueprint for our endgame. It's a good conversation to have before medicating our children into docile "normality" in order to better "fit in" with all the other kids. In any case, The Imitation Game is a bracing bit of the old familiar that has the benefit of that one marvellous performance--and if we're being honest, it's something I'd want my preteen children to see before they get too much more sophisticated. The spoonful of sugar is sweet, and the medicine is just about the right dose.