The Imitation Game

Anyone in need of a refresher on Oscar-Friendly Biopics 101 can look no further than The Imitation Game, a competently assembled, highly manipulative, and utterly unimaginative breakdown of renowned British mathematician Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) life highlights and lowlights. Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, whose previous directing credit was the tautly suspenseful, if overly tidy heist thriller Headhunters, has clearly fallen under Harvey Weinstein's awards-focused spell here. Tyldum carries over the tidiness, but little of the suspense from his Norwegian work.

Tyldum remains a talented pro even when slotting familiar pieces into familiar places, though, so The Imitation Game is hardly a failure. Its aims seem entirely met by the time the end credits roll following a laundry list of written factoids about Turing's life and legacy. The photography is attractive and the costumes appropriately pretty in their pleasant period detail. The acting is strong enough to lend the production a sense of impressive prestige. It's everything an Oscar-bait biopic could want to be, safe and audience friendly in its predictable vacillation between seriousness and lightheartedness, a weepy moment here, a comical anecdote there. The textbook adherence to formula here is worn like a badge of pride.

This makes it all very easy to sense the ups and downs before we actually experience them and it's worth more than a few eye rolls whenever a new reveal about a character or situation is made, because Tyldum is always looking to extract a tear or a bead of sweat in the most mechanical of ways. Since the plot is mainly focused on Turing's days as the head of a code-breaking team trying tirelessly to beat the Nazi Enigma machine, there are plenty of opportunities for sentimentality and suspense. There are also plenty of opportunities to provide glimpses of war efforts like bomb drops and submarine attacks that rely heavily on mediocre CGI that unnecessarily stretches the budget too thin.

Some of these moments at least lead to a nifty editing trick, such as when a traveling torpedo segues seamlessly into a shot of a cigarette being extinguished in an ashtray. But for the most part, these diversions are unfortunate distractions that serve to feed the movie's conventional tendencies. And there are many of those. Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore are in constant pursuit of various clichés to employ and the result of their efforts is often stiflingly calculated.

At one point, a member of Turing's team protests a decision to not alert a convoy to an impending attack and while the decision is based in reason (it's believed the alert would tip off the Germans to the team's code-breaking capabilities), we know the team member's problem with the plan is personal. All it takes is a throwaway moment from earlier where the young man mentions that his brother is fighting in the war to tell us that of course that very brother is now positioned with that very convoy. The obviousness and sappiness of the reveal doesn't stop Tyldum from dragging it all out so the effect feels fully dulled.

Such moments run rampant through Moore's script. His occasionally sharp dialogue and generally fast-flowing scenes are undermined by an abysmally bland structure and constant reliance on a repetitive routine. There's a crackling quality to his writing that seems commendable on the surface, but it's hard to find positive adjectives to describe a script that is so eager to play by the rules, to rub shoulders with the obvious and the familiar. Plus, there's a line about outsiders doing extraordinary things when little is expected of them that is cheesy the first time it's uttered and downright throw-your-popcorn-at-the-screen stupid the third time someone spits it out.

Tyldum keeps the cogs of the story turning, but by the time we see Turing as a teen being bullied in private school, the lack of tight focus on what should be a very intense subject is too difficult to ignore. Moore's script chops up the narrative into three timeline sections and uses each to ostracize Turing so we can better understand how abnormal he was before and after his days battling Enigma. His homosexuality is acknowledged here as a tragic aspect of his life, because he's had to hide his true feelings time and again. It's all discussed in hush tones, though, and the movie's treatment of this theme feels dry and impersonal.

This at least fits in with everything else. The Imitation Game is too busy following the biopic rulebook to do anything as novel as exploring its themes with any sort of depth. Even the codebreaking itself is strangely vague, just letters on a chalkboard at first and then the whirring, spinning cylinders of Turing's early computing device later. Tyldum perhaps understandably cares only to train his eye on the people behind the effort instead of the technology itself, but the characters are hardly refreshing in their arcs and attitudes.

Like every other element of the filmmaking machine, the acting contributes exactly what this sort of awards bait requires. Cumberbatch's performance is fine in many ways, committed and powered by that grandly confident voice of his, but it's hard not to feel like, along with Russell Crowe's John Nash and Eddie Redmayne's Stephen Hawking, modern movie portrayals of real life mathematical geniuses are destined to be a series of awkward tics that posit the characters as socially bumbling weirdos. Perhaps the performances are entirely accurate, but at this point, the history of such portraits seems to suggest the problem lies more with actors than with mathematicians.

It's still a decent performance to build a movie around, especially one of such unoriginal makeup. And Cumberbatch gets solid support from the likes of Charles Dance and Mark Strong, who both play military minds eager to find a solution to the Enigma problem. Keira Knightley is uniformly good as Turing's friend and partner Joan, but she's let down by the script, which gives her little to work with beyond a dry representation of a woman struggling to find her place in a boy's club. Knightley deserves better as she’s always most interesting when challenged, which is certainly never a threat here.

Such is the lesson to be learned when studying or re-studying the existence of the awards-hungry biopic. The easy route is always the way to go, because familiarity, as long as it's dressed up with somewhere to go, sells. Other tricks of the trade include glossing over big themes while giving off an air of importance and feeding good actors weighty-sounding lines to spew loudly and with pre-packaged passion. The lesson here is crisp and clear. The Imitation Game is quite fine for what it is, except there's always something disingenuous about a bunch of talented people coming together to turn the pursuit of art into something so callously robotic. Ones and zeros can break codes, but they don't necessarily make good movies.