Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Recent Watches: The Imitation Game (2014)

There’s few things more appealing to studios looking for award-friendly flicks then an incredible true story. There’s always an extra layer of inspiration or tragedy added when the viewer knows that the events in a film actually happened. “The Imitation Game” is probably the most Oscar-baity of all this year’s nominees for those reasons. It’s based on a true story that is incredible, inspiring, and ultimately tragic. It has the prestidge element of being a period piece. It’s an intricately plotted film about espionage. That “The Imitation Game” was pegged as an early candidate for the Best Picture winner is no surprise at all. That it won’t win is frankly more surprising.

Set during the worst days of World War II, “The Imitation Game” is the story of Alan Turning. Turning is a gifted, if antisocial, code breaker and quickly becomes involved with the war effort. Along with several other talented men, Turning goes to work cracking the German’s previously thought unbreakable Enigma code. He bristles against his authorities, who don’t understand his methods. He also has trouble with his coworkers, who also don’t understand his methods in addition to not liking him. Eventually, Turning’s efforts help win the war. Because he was a homosexual, his nation repaid Turning by chemically castrating him, which may have contributed to his eventual suicide.

Alan Turning is exactly the kind of part irresistible to any big name actor. An eccentric genius, a misunderstood outsider, and somebody who changed the world – these qualities are catnip to the A-list. Though Leo DiCaprio considered it, Benedict Cumberbatch took the lead instead. As someone who has never seen an episode of “Sherlock,” it has taken me a while to warm up to Cumberbatch, mostly because of his utterly ridiculous name. Turning is a parted well suited to Cumberbatch’s abilities. Though gifted with a powerful voice, “The Imitation Game” allows Benedict to restrain this talent successfully. By most accounts, the film exaggerates Turning’s eccentricities, portraying him as possibly autistic. Some actors would overact in a part like this. Cumberbatch goes in the opposite direction, portraying Turning as controlled and restrained in everything he does. Part of the joy of the film is watching Turning reveal his inner life, making friends, and proving his worth. “The Imitation Game” is mostly a display for Cumberbatch’s abilities and it finally made me a fan. Or, at least, an appreciator.

Mostly invented for the film is Turning’s deep friendship with Joan Clarke, as played in the film by Keira Knightley. Regardless of historical accuracy, Knightley is equally well-cast as the screenwriter’s version of Clarke. She has great chemistry with Cumberbatch. Honestly, the two’s quiet dependency on each other, and especially the way it plays out, is what keeps the audience emotionally invested in the film. The moment when Turning awkwardly proposes to Clarke for purely practical reasons is a not-generally-funny-film’s funniest moment.The serially underrated Knightley got a well-deserved nomination for the part. The rest of the cast is filled out with actors experienced in the “British People Talking in Rooms” genre. Mark Strong, who has made a career out of this, has a usual part as a stuffy, slightly duplicitous, boss. Matthew Goode, who also usually plays antagonistic nobility, gets to shake it up as Turning’s main rival who eventually warms up to the guy.

Most impressively, “The Imitation Game” is a thriller that functions without explosions or dramatic reveals. Morten Tyldum’s direction isn’t flashy. However, by cutting carefully between the men working at Bletchley Park and the war zones, he instills on the audience what is at stake. The best image in the film is a sudden cut to a tank rolling over a helmet. In some ways, “The Imitation Game” recalls ‘80s cop movies about rogue good guys struggling under stuffy bosses. One key moment has the program’s leader storming in to literally tear down Turning’s work. As hacky a device as this is, it works well at creating tension. The eventual cracking of the code is an exciting, joyous moment that rubs off on the viewer.

Disappointingly, it also happens with about a half-hour left to go, giving “The Imitation Game” a protracted resolution. “The Imitation Game” has been criticized for not focusing more on Turning’s homosexuality. This critique is true. The film is about Turning’s code cracking, not his sexual preference. Or maybe the filmmakers were more comfortable with making a thriller then a drama. Turning’s troubled school days, where he first discovered he was gay, are shown. (Though the factual validity of these scenes have been questioned, like everything else in the movie.) This moments are quietly touching and well done, though the conclusion is more overdone then heart-breaking. The comparison drawn between Turning’s high school crush and the proto-computer he invented is effective if in questionable taste. I found the last act of the movie a bit overly maudlin. As a straight man, I can’t speak for the LGBT community but I’d say the film could have handled Turning’s homosexuality and how it was treated a little more gracefully.

“The Imitation Game” is not a masterpiece or a crowning achievement of cinema. It’s a well acted, well made, reasonably entertaining film. Experience has taught me that these are actually the type of movie the Academy loves. Competent and compelling are arguably more important to them then groundbreaking or mind-blowing. Hey, I liked the movie but I’m not sure I’d give it any awards either. Honestly, grading stuff that way is unfair to people doing good work. [7/10]

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