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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 22, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: Cumberbatch’s performance drives Turing biopic

"The Imitation Game"

Directed by Morten Tyldum

In the first days of World War II, a grim mood grips every aspect of British life. Children gather in train stations by the thousands, donning brightly colored gas masks while they wait to be shipped to the countryside. Soldiers fortify government buildings while citizens prepare bomb shelters in their backyards. In a nondescript set of radio warehouses, a solitary man in a tweed suit seems unintimidated by the German threat. As his commanding officer describes the mainstay of German communications, a code that resets every night at midnight and is considered unbreakable, the man interrupts: “Let me give it a try,” he says. “Then we’ll know for sure.”

“The Imitation Game” is based on the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mathematical genius turned classified code breaker for the British army during World War II. After building one of the world’s first computers to crack the code used for all German communications, Turing is prosecuted for homosexual acts and punished with chemical castration that has devastating psychological and physical effects.

The film quickly introduces narratives from three times in Turing’s life: one set during Turing’s childhood at a prestigious boarding school, the second focusing on his cryptography work during the war and a third detailing his life after the war, specifically his arrest and prosecution. Although running these storylines simultaneously could have easily devolved into a jumble of disconnected scenes, this narrative decision adds depth and interest to the film. A memorable highlight of this technique occurs at the film’s climax, when a police officer opens the door of an interrogation room to question the older Turing and, after a beat of darkness, the door opens instead to Turing’s childhood, where he is about to receive critical news from his headmaster. Combined with other moments of suspense in the plot, these connected timelines give the film an extra element of intrigue that contributes greatly to its storytelling success.

Another highlight of “The Imitation Game” is Cumberbatch’s performance as Turing. However, he is as enthralling as the rest of the cast is dull. Several of Turing’s fellow cryptographers are particularly hollow, most notably Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who fluctuates between spunky feminist and meek housewife at the convenience of the plot. It seems the only reason she is included is to emphasize Turing’s good traits. He chooses her to be part of his team in spite of her being a woman and even proposes to her when her parents disapprove of her being unmarried. However, considering the film’s goal to highlight Turing and his enormous contribution to history, this disparity of character development is a somewhat acceptable flaw.

A more damaging character trope arises in anyone who opposes Turing’s work. His stodgy commanding officer seems to have no reason for his lack of support for Turing other than a general dislike of Turing’s character. Turing doesn’t play politics, and several scenes in the movie are dedicated to making Turing more personable so that his colleagues will be more willing to help him. However, this aspect of the film teeters on unbelievability. Turing’s work is sound, supported by Polish cryptographers who had broken a previous German code between the wars, at a time when Britain is desperate for a new solution. It seems a bit ridiculous that one man’s lack of social skills is the main obstruction to his cryptographic success. Though this is obviously the point that the film is attempting to make, the message is, at times, a bit heavy-handed.

A more historically contested point of the film, and of Turing’s life, is his undoing at the hands of a chemical castration process mandated by the government to “cure him of his homosexuality.” Though many believe the government was responsible for his suffering, some experts dispute whether the drugs Turing was taking had as negative an effect as the movie portrayed. However, even if historically inaccurate, the dramatic effect of Turing’s severe decline underscores a main point of the film: Here is a man who saved an estimated 14 million lives, only to be punished for his sexuality by the very government he had once served and was partially responsible for saving. His dramatized demise condemns the government’s actions much more effectively, giving the injustice the full criticism it deserves.

“The Imitation Game” will surely leave viewers mulling over its message long after the credits roll. Cumberbatch’s expert portrayal of Turing set inside a near perfectly executed plot calls well-deserved recognition to a relatively unknown story and demands attention as both a film and a critical moment in history. All historical inaccuracies or disputes aside, this shining biopic deserves as much praise as the hero it represents.

Mary Ford can be reached at mford1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @therealmaryford