The following is an evaluative critique of The Imitation Game I wrote for a composition class last year. I discovered after choosing my topic and position that my teacher really liked the film, but fortunately she was good-natured enough to hear out my alternate perspective…
What forms the core identity of a person? Is it their accomplishments, their beliefs, their sexuality, or something greater? This is an enigma that baffles many, including, unfortunately, the creators of The Imitation Game, a biopic about Alan Turing. An eccentric mathematician, Turing was responsible for cracking German encrypted communications during World War II, indirectly saving millions of lives. The Imitation Game decodes Turing’s remarkable story into a film less than two hours, and the result, while highly watchable and well-acted, confines itself to generic characterizations and contrived plot devices that ultimately make the movie forgettable.
The film’s setup seems promising: Great Britain is fighting the Nazi menace, and they are losing. A major difficulty is that the Germans communicate using Enigma, a machine that encrypts communications, keeping Allied forces in the dark about German plans. To find a way to break Enigma, the British recruit Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician with a severe inability to work with others. The Imitation Game follows Turing’s work aiding the British war effort alongside fellow cryptanalysts Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).
The movie is well cast—Cumberbatch, Knightley, Mark Strong, and others do justice to their respective roles. Also, audiences will appreciate the cinematography—a simple but colorful treatment that seems fitting: no flashy special effects here, but instead a style that supports the plot without drawing attention to itself.
These elements sound like the makings of a great biopic, and they are, but the filmmakers don’t quite crack the code to fitting them together. The film attempts to touch on all aspects of Turing for which he is known—his work as a cryptanalyst, his contributions to computer science (Turing Machines—the foundation of modern computing), his contributions to the world of artificial intelligence (the Turing Test), his contributions to the war effort, and his sexuality.
With all these threads to pull from, it is disappointing that The Imitation Game offers only shallow characterization. The movie attempts to capture the homosexual aspect of Turing’s identity in the film, but the different threads—Turing’s close friendship with his classmate Christopher Morcom in middle school and other events—don’t connect with the rest of the film or Turing’s character. They are random asides, possibly thrown in to make us empathize more with Turing, but instead they will leave audiences scratching their heads, “What was the point of that scene?” The real Turing remains as much of an enigma after watching the film as before. Stringing together vignettes to create more a highlights reel of Turing’s life than an actually enlightening portrait of the man, Turing’s character is hardly developed beyond the description “eccentric yet socially stunted genius.” This is a role that, while Cumberbatch plays well, seems a bit too similar to Sherlock Holmes. And Sherlock Holmes is more interesting.
Even worse, the plot, while it offers a few surprises, mostly recycles dramatic situations and moral conundrums that audiences have seen before in other war films and dramas. The result feels contrived, a poorly conceived imitation of better films. There is a point in the movie where Turing learns the importance of working as a team and having allies, but this lesson seems very forced and only heightens the sense that many of the characters only exist to move the plot forward. Turing’s team of cryptanalysts is portrayed (with the exception of Clarke) as a crew of idiots saved only in their efforts by the genius of Turing. They exist for morale support throughout much of the film, coming through as a team for Turing when he is about to be fired but otherwise remaining one-dimensionally in the background. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal I don’t know, but either way, it does not make for interesting drama.
So despite having, on paper, all the elements of a compelling biopic—a solid cast, interesting subject matter, and plenty of story to work with—The Imitation Game fails to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Even though it is available on Netflix now and might look tempting, for compelling stories about eccentric geniuses, look elsewhere.