This week I continue to punish myself with biopics. They’re a tricky business, and can be incredibly good, but I feel like the mentality pulsating through Hollywood these past few years and on to the coming few is something along the lines of, “Everyone should have a movie made about them. Why are we wasting our time with all these fictional character, people who don’t even exist, when there are billions of humans in the world who have lived and died for real, but still don’t have a movie made about them?” Here’s the thing. Martin Luther King Jr. probably should have a movie. Abraham Lincoln should maybe have a few. Alan Turing should have a movie, too, but should he have this movie?
The Imitation Game (2014)
The Plot: In 1951, brilliant English scientist and professor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is under investigation following a burglary of his house. Investigating detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) uncovers the shocking truth that Turing’s been trying to hide: he’s a homosexual, which is illegal. This prompts Turing to tell the incredibly top secret story of how he invented the computer during World War Two in order to break the German Enigma code and win the war. Joining him in his efforts is a crack team of other scientists, including the smart-despite-being-female Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom Turing develops a somewhat awkward relationship, prompting flashbacks to his schoolboy days of battling with his blossoming homosexuality, blossoming genius, and some form of autism maybe (?).
But yeah, core thing is breaking the German code. All that other stuff is just kind of distracting to include in a plot summary. Strangely enough, that’s because it’s also distracting to include in a film. Alan Turing was a brilliant man. He invented the computer from scratch, a feat that the end titles of the movie tell me shortened the war by two years and saved fourteen million lives, and in exchange for this achievement, his country found him guilty of sexual indecency and had him chemically castrated, which later contributed to his suicide in 1952. Screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum want to tell this entire story—the entire story of his life—but only really commit to the bit about the Second World War. As such, the other lines feel less developed and less necessary, especially the glimpses into his childhood. Obviously, things that happen during your youth mold and shape you as you mature into an adult. Duh. Indeed, this particular relationship at school, which both introduced Turing to the wonderful world of cryptography and forced him to address his sexual preferences, carries considerable weight, but that doesn’t mean it has to chew up runtime. It’s backstory, but it never directly effects the primary conflict.
The 1951 segment is more harmful, though. It has some of the most important stuff, offers the conclusion to Turing’s arc, and questions the wider issue of sexual discrimination. Sounds good, right? Alan Turing, in recent years, has become something of a gay icon, a martyr and a hero for the cause of gay rights. We can waste hour after hour debating the ethics of exploiting a dead person who had no interest in politics as a symbol for a political movement, but whether or not you or I agree with the appropriation of Turing’s image, that’s the way it is. You might expect a film made in 2014 about a man whose genius saved millions, who invented a device that we’ve all come to depend upon, and who was later persecuted for his sexuality, to try to idolize him. It does, but it does a really half-assed job of it. They have no problem with the genius inventor bit, and throughout the movie include the conflict of his sexuality just enough for the audience to make the leap to the next question all on their own. Then, in the last four or five minutes maybe, they decide to go full force towards making Turing an icon of gay rights. Not only does this feel out of place with the rest of the film, because it is truly an anachronistic intrusion, a stance that contemporary authors and critics are imposing upon a historical event, but it comes in so late as to feel like an afterthought.
Enough of that, though. You all want to read about Cumberbatch, no doubt. You know, he’s a good actor. I’m not crazy about him, but he’s good at what he does. His turn as Alan Turing brims with emotion and sincerity; the viewer can tell just how much he cares about the character he portrays. That said, though, I think that Cumberbatch’s best trait as an actor is his voice. He nearly saved The Desolation of Smaug with that thing. It’s an incredible asset. However, Alan Turing did not have a deep, dark, silky-smooth, bass-heavy voice. He had a slightly higher-pitched, sort of hoity-toity one. Cumberbatch commits to this, and does a great job, but ends up sacrificing the thing that, in my eyes, makes him great to begin with. Of course, his willingness to do that in the first place reflects his devotion to the craft, so I can’t let that go unappreciated. I don’t think he deserved the Oscar nomination more than David Oyelowo for Selma or Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.
Now that I’ve gotten the Oscars down on the page, let’s discuss that briefly. Keira Knightley is insufferable. She has been good in things, so I know she can act. Never Let Me Go comes to mind as a prime example. When I use the word insufferable, I don’t mean it in quite the same way I would in reference to her “performance” in A Dangerous Method. She’s not bad in The Imitation Game, just kind of annoying. Furthermore, she’s the only female presence in the entire film, and is supposed to stand beside Turing as a monument to what women can do in a world run by straight men. This political statement is even more underdeveloped and half-baked than the one for Turing, partly because Knightley makes kind of a useless person out of the role. The point I’m trying to make is that she shouldn’t have gotten nominated.
I’m similarly annoyed by director Morten Tyldum nabbing a nod. The Imitation Game isn’t poorly directed. It’s competent, but nothing special. Tyldum performs his job ably, but fails to bring anything unique or inspiring to his technique. That slot in the nominations definitely should have gone to Damien Chazelle for Whiplash. Oh well. There’s really no point in complaining about the Academy Awards.
Though my review was largely negative, I didn’t hate The Imitation Game. I shrug my shoulders at it. It’s a decent film and it held my attention, but ultimately I’ve seen a dozen other Oscar-grabbing movies like it.