The Pitch: Turing tested.
The Review: It might seem difficult to imagine for anyone under the age of thirty, but we are only in the second generation of home computer users. Computers themselves evolve at a phenomenal rate – my phone now has over 65,000 times the memory of my first home computer – but anyone my age or older will remember their first encounter with a computer. Having studied computing at both school and university, I’ve been taught by people who’d used punched cards, paper tape and computers the size of rooms. They were only one generation removed from the great thinkers of the development of computing, many of whom were required to hone their skills in the service of war and whose contribution to victory may have been as significant as any armoured division or fleet of boats. Alan Turing gave us one of the defining statements around computing in his Turing test; the idea that a truly artificially intelligent machine would be indistinguishable from a person if you only saw what they said (and the idea from which the film’s title is derived). He also helped to refine the bombe machine which was critical to decoding the German intelligence encoded via their Enigma devices, and this new British film attempts to decode the enigma of Turing himself; both the brilliant mind struggling in a public setting and the private man whose secrets would ultimately see him pay a very high price.
There is a fantastically interesting story to be told about the work that the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did during the Second World War, but Morten Tyldum’s film is afraid to explore it in any great depth. Without spoiling too much – because there’s actually very little to spoil and I will presume you know who won the Second World War – the entirety of the main plot of the film consists of:
- man says he can build machine which he doesn’t explain, but is covered in dials so looks impressive
- man builds machine
- people tell him machine doesn’t work
- man turns on machine
- man calibrates machine
- machine works
The closest analogy would be a sports movie; different sports movies go into various levels of detail regarding the mechanics of their sport, but must eventually put that aside and engage you in the thrill of their pastime. Not only does The Imitation Game fail desperately to understand any interesting aspect of the code breaking mechanics but it crucially also fails for the most part to make the actual act of cracking the codes tense or dramatic. Wondering if your vacuum cleaner will work when you turn it on, then discovering that it does with a bit of fiddling, does not make for entertainment or drama and The Imitation Game fails to achieve anything more; simply inserting shots of war-torn Europe feels critically disconnected and does nothing to elevate the stakes. That’s all the more frustrating when Tyldum’s previous film, Headhunters, did a great job of maintaining tension despite some wild fluctuations in tone.
Alongside that sits the issue of the film attempting to deal with Turing’s closeted homosexuality. The structure of the film sees us flashing between three time frames, starting with Turing under suspicion from the police after the war when his house is burgled, and flashing back to his school days and his first burgeoning relationship with a school friend. The repeated skipping between time frames feels laboured at times, and it takes an eternity to get to anything approaching forward momentum in any of the story strands. Tyldum also struggles to make some of the developments in the script feel genuine, and with regard to Turing’s sexuality the school scenes are the only ones that come across believably, rather than feeling melodramatic and forced. Both of the later time periods suffer from occasional cheap innuendo and a reluctance to tackle anything head on; it’s understandable given the time period that none of these issues were addressed in public until Turing’s arrest, but the film seems reluctant to address them in private either. It’s not just in those areas that notes in the film ring false; there are scenes of Turing running, which feel oddly placed and unlikely, yet Turing in real life ran marathons and was an ultra-distance runner.
There is one big area in which The Imitation Game succeeds, and that’s in the quality of the acting. Benedict Cumberbatch gets the meatiest role as Turing, and his track record for playing super-intelligent social outcasts of different varieties sees him unsurprisingly excel with another nuanced performance. His performance is well mirrored by Alex Lawther who portrays Turing at school age, and complemented by one of Keira Knightley’s strongest turns in years as the woman who matches him intellectually and understands him most closely. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do well in roles that don’t exactly stretch, but it’s Matthew Goode who brings balance and shading to the central ensemble and adds both notes of conflict and sympathy while remaining grounded in a consistent character. It’s right that the achievements of British code breakers should be celebrated in film, after so many botched attempts in the past, and if The Imitation Game gets details wrong and blends characters then its attempts to mythologise its characters and their endeavours are still laudable to a point. Let’s be honest, when The Social Network took a similar approach it worked very effectively, but David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin magnified the rough edges of their characters to almost cartoonish levels. Despite that, their film never shied away from their inherent flaws or human failings of their protagonists. The Imitation Game seeks to eulogise those who did such good work, but never gets under the skin of the people it’s examining, and when it also fails to draw you in on a basic storytelling level, it seems that the life of Alan Turing is one code that will remain cinematically unbroken for now.
Why see it at the cinema: There are a few brief cutaways to battle scenes, but in general it’s curiously uncinematic in its filming. What it did do at the screening I was at was to generate more well-placed and well-observed middle-class tutting and indignation than any film I can remember, which actually served to raise my enjoyment of the film.
I was almost tempted to suggest that you shouldn’t actually watch the film in the cinema; before I take leave of my senses completely, can I just suggest that if you’re in the vicinity of Milton Keynes you take the opportunity to visit both Bletchley Park and the currently separate National Museum Of Computing? Both will provide much greater and more genuine insight into the fascinating story of this particular war effort.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate sex references. These include use of the word penis and a joke about blowjobs; nothing that’s going to shock your average 11 year old.
My cinema experience: Because I’m clearly insane, after watching What We Do In The Shadows in Stevenage I discovered there was a late showing of The Imitation Game at the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds, so drove an hour and a half to catch this while I had the chance. A trip to the Abbeygate is always worth it, and I had time for a blonde beer in the bar and a quick browse on the web on my iPhone before taking up my favourite seat in screen 1. Hopefully the success of this well attended screening might see a few more later shows popping up at the Abbeygate.
The Score: 5/10