Friday, January 16, 2015

The Imitation Game Review

When I reviewed Gangs of New York back in 2012, I asked readers what obscure bit of history they would like to see made into a movie. I said I'd love to see a biopic of Alan Turing. He was a pioneering scientist and mathematician who is considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. He was a remarkable historical figure whose life tragically ended early. I knew about some aspects of his life before The Imitation Game (2014) was released, but I didn't realize just how influential he had been and how many lives he saved during World War II. I'm delighted his life was depicted in film this way, and that it was an outstanding film besides.
During the winter of 1952, British authorities entered the home of mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to investigate a reported burglary. They instead ended up arresting Turing himself on charges of 'gross indecency', an accusation that would lead to his devastating conviction for the criminal offense of homosexuality - little did officials know, they were actually incriminating the pioneer of modern-day computing. Under orders of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), Turing had famously lead a motley group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers, including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Together, the team sets out to crack the so-called unbreakable codes of Germany's World War II Enigma machine's algorithm so that future coded messages could be deciphered. Under nail-biting pressure, these geniuses helped to shorten the war and, in turn, save thousands of lives.
The story spans Turing's unhappy teenage years, focuses on his wartime work, and his post-war decline. It was far more interesting than one would suppose it should be. The bulk of the story revolves around Britain's greatest minds in the World War II era in a secret military base scrambling to crack a code. That doesn't really lend itself to thrilling scenes. Yet this is by no means a dull story. There is a sense of urgency throughout the movie as they literally race against the clock, trying to solve the code before midnight when the code's key is reset and they have to start over from scratch. Each time they fail hundreds, even thousands, of lives of the allied forces are lost. On top of that, Turing isn't well liked thanks to his social awkwardness and obliviousness to normal social cues. Often he did not have the support of his colleagues, and was often under threat of being fired for wasting Government money on a gigantic thinking machine that didn't seem to do anything but use valuable resources. There is a lot of tension, lies and secrets, character development, excellent plot twists, and, unexpectedly, a fair number of laughs.
The acting was superb! Admittedly, I'm not the biggest Cumberbatch fan, but you can't deny how amazing his voice sounds. This is the first time I've seen him in a starring role and he nails it. Much of the movie's humor comes from Turing's obliviousness to social cues. His literal mindedness tended to drive people around him crazy, and Cumberbatch portrayed Turing's aloofness perfectly. There's a scene when Turing is taking Joan Clarke's advice to try to endear himself to his team. He buys them all apples, shuffles around their work area awkwardly distributing them, and proceeds to fail at telling them a very lame joke, and then leaving. Scenes like this are where Cumberbatch's acting skills are most impressive. Acting out a character who's trying to be funny, but isn't, and isn't even aware how bad he looks and clearly doesn't get the nuances of humor can't be easy to portray. Moments when Turing is torn between revealing secrets in the name of national security and keeping secrets in order to keep working in the interest of ending the war are also well acted.  Cumberbatch skillfully plays a character that is so oblivious to normal social cues that he doesn't always realize he's been invited to lunch. Within this awkward character, he shows us the inner conflict of a man who isn't sure when to keep valuable information quiet and the sense of uncertainty it causes him. Cumberbatch portrays this character of superior intelligence and social obliviousness brilliantly. Cumberbatch doesn't play Turing so much as he inhabits him; bravely and sympathetically, but without mediation.
I can't imagine how difficult it is to visually portray a historical setting in film on a large scale, but some movies depict these periods with such efficacy that we feel transported to another time for the duration of the movie. The Imitation Game is one such movie. The costumes, hair styles, cars, buildings, technology, everything seems taken out of history books to illustrate the past for us. The movie isn't trying to showcase these props to us or convince us of how difficult it was to depict World War II era England, they were subtly incorporated with nonchalance.  And that sold us on the time period better than anything else. The sets were gorgeous, the props were perfect, costumes were spot on.
The Imitation Game showed us one of the most important stories of the last century and is one of the greatest movies of 2014. This is one of the year's finest pieces of screen acting, the characters were outstanding, and the story was fascinating and pertinent to us today. This was an outstanding piece of screenwriting as well. It's emotionally complex, tailored to perfection, while being delicately nuanced and tragic. While the main character is gay, there are no sex scenes. Regardless of your views on homosexuality, there isn't anything in The Imitation Game that I think anyone could find offensive. The movie isn't trying to sell you on a biased agenda or tell you what to think about homosexuality; that's not what the movie is about. It's about trying to end a war, and how sometimes people who think outside the box are important to overcome seemingly impossible problems, and that their sexual orientation is immaterial to the question at hand. I loved The Imitation Game, and I highly recommend seeing it. It's been nominated for Academy Awards in eight categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. This is worth seeing, and if you're a fan of dramas, it's worth owning a copy  as well.

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