Published Dec 11, 2014Fresh off its TIFF People's Choice award win this year, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is poised to capture the same sort of popular momentum that led to Oscar gold for previous Weinstein Company-released People's Choice winners The King's Speech and Silver Linings Playbook. At this point, the formula pretty much writes itself: take a classically structured script, add characters who struggle with some sort of neuroses or affliction that are portrayed as patronizingly "quirky" and throw in a director who operates with a distinct visual style to polish the film's rougher edges (see the fish-eye lenses of Tom Hooper or David O. Russell's ever-swirling handheld camera work).
Tyldum's film is a creakier, less assured vehicle than those previous films. Script issues notwithstanding, The Imitation Game awkwardly tries to structure itself as a thriller and a biopic without being particularly good at either, glazing over the tragic life of early computer genius Alan Turing in order to produce a crowd-pleasing piece of conventional entertainment. It's the sort of film that treats Turing's sexuality as a midway plot twist, a twist that feels dramatically unmotivated, revealing the film's insincerity and disinterest in effective characterization. Turing committed suicide in 1954 after the British government chemically castrated him for being gay, a point the film reduces to a single scene near the end of the film and a brief subtitle before the credits.
If The Imitation Game plays like The Social Network meets Tinker, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, it lacks the immaculate construction, complex narrative structure and rich characterization of those films, instead treating Turing's sexuality as a part of the puzzle that doesn't fit. By omitting a moment of real tragedy, the film feels tonally inept: a feel-good thriller without any urgency or thrills, a pat on the back about the triumphs of geniuses while exonerating the society that mistreated them.
Part of this is due to Tyldum's direction, at best invisible, and at worst suffocating and stuffy. Scenes that should produce urgency and elevate the stakes fall flat, such as arguments about how many British ships Turing's team should save with their code-breaking machine without letting the Nazis know they've intercepted messages. It all comes down to the film feeling overly calculated and designed, lacking the thrilling intrigue that goes along with the best British spy thrillers.
While the film struggles with tone, Tyldum's near invisible touch does great service to his actors, giving them room to make the best of a rough script. Benedict Cumberbatch and Matthew Goode do great naturalistic work without overplaying the broader moments, and Kiera Knightley turns in a career-best performance (making a stealth comeback this year with terrific performances in Begin Again and Laggies). Cumberbatch is careful not to reduce Turing to the "magical autistic" trope that he made popular with his role on Sherlock, while still communicating the thought processes necessary to figure out complex computer designs. He's nuanced enough to articulate a blend of social awkwardness and intelligence in a way that feels like a real character, which makes Turing's fate at the end of the film feel all the more out of left-field and out of place in the narrative.
While The Imitation Game struggles with what it wants to be and how to negotiate itself in relation to a moment of real tragedy, the film gets a pass solely on the strength of its performances.
(The Weinstein Company)