EVERYTHING’S been coming up Cumberbatch in the last couple of years. Not content with dominating the tumblrs of teenage girls with fellow Brit-thesp-heartthrob Tom Hiddleston, Benedict has managed to star in films as far-branching as August: Osage County, 12 Years a Slave and Star Trek, all while lending Asperger’s-tinged pathos to his celebrated title role of Sherlock. In 2016, he’ll be Marvel’s Doctor Strange. He even got married, bless him.
There’s certainly little to doubt in his ability; the man can make roles as poorly-written as Khan engaging, mask the flaws of The Fifth Estate and lend hitherto absent gravitas to The Hobbit trilogy. His workload is commendable and his talent undeniable; little wonder that The Imitation Game is no exception.
As a vehicle for Cumberbatch and his craft, this biopic on tragic codebreaking genius Alan Turing (Cumberbatch himself) is among the best. In other areas, however, the film is underdeveloped and overly cinematised, slapping a garish Hollywood sheen on a story that should have been anything but.
Those familiar with Turing will already know the basics. Employed at the top-secret Bletchley Park, the British military tasks a group of codebreakers – headed by Turing – to crack the Nazis’ Enigma machine, a supposedly unbreakable device. Already embroiled in a difficult team dynamic with the clock running up against them, Turing’s job only gets more complicated with the arrival of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a brilliant cryptanalyst who shares Turing’s enthusiasm for crossword puzzles.
Told over the course of three time periods – Turing as a bullied schoolchild in the 20s, Turing during the war and the police investigation that had him arrested for crimes of indecency (read: homosexuality) in 1952 – The Imitation Game awkwardly lumbers back and forth through its splintered chronology, spending too little time on the bookends and too much time establishing why they’re important.
While the 1952 segments have their share of problems – not least the flagrant underuse of Rory Kinnear – the 1920s schooldays sequences suffer the most from this haphazard editing. They’re used almost exclusively as a crux to quickly and easily explain gaps in our understanding of the man. Why does he name his famous machine Christopher (note: he actually didn’t)? The object of his youthful affections (Jack Bannon) was called that. Where did he discover his mastery of cryptology? The same child, who creakingly remarks, “I think you’re going to get the hang of this,” almost winking and high-fiving the audience in the process.
These meandering flashbacks do little if not nothing to heap any emotional resonance upon Turing’s character. They’re redundant at best and condescending at worst, tipping too easily into the insipid. We can see the gears turning when Christopher blithely tells young Turing (Alex Lawther): “Sometimes it’s the very people no one can imagine doing anything who do the things no one can imagine.”
Besides sounding like advice from a bargain-bin self-help book written somewhere on the Moon, it’s a line that no one in the world would ever say out loud. Screenwriter Graham Moore disagrees, apparently, as it’s then repeated twice more, presumably so the ones nodding off at the back can hear.
The film also throws in several artificial tension-heighteners and groaning lightbulb moments. There’s a point when Charles Dance’s unflappably smug Commander Denniston storms in to shut down Turing’s expensive machine, and another when Turing makes his breakthrough while chatting to a random secretary in a pub, prompting a frantic midnight dash to Hut Eight. We can almost hear director Morten Tyldum demanding scenes of sweaty jogs and scrumpled paper.
Fortunately, despite these problems, Cumberbatch turns in an astonishing performance, lending complexity and paradox to a man who, by turns, was irascible and even-keeled; arrogant and prodigal; self-assured and doubting. His grapples with his closeted homosexuality are compelling, particularly in a powerful ending sequence with Knightley, where the toll of Turing’s (government-mandated) chemical castration is laid bare.
Their chemistry together is sparkling, especially when a painfully false romance ensues and they fool themselves into thinking of marriage as a viable option. Knightley is often magnetic, though a little too close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl at times; in others, she’s reminiscent of a female Hugh Grant at his Grantiest.
Charles Dance is delightfully sneering, and his interview with an obstinate Turing stands out as a highlight. Mark Strong’s glorified cameo as MI6 commander Stewart Menzies is ice-cold and piercing. Of the other, seldom-seen Bletchley codebreakers, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) receives the most attention and runs with it as a playboy chess champion ruffled by Turing’s intellectual superiority.
Given these performances, then, it’s unfortunate that the film’s focus is too sporadic. Though it addresses the tragedy of Turing’s treatment and his betrayal by his government handlers, it’s only through Cumberbatch’s performance that we see, in any detail, the cost. His suicide is, regrettably, glossed over in text displayed over a bonfire of documents at Bletchley. What could have been a timely show of solidarity with a growing LGBT movement is diminished by, “Cor, wasn’t this bloke smart, eh? Oh, and he was gay too; pity he got treated like he did, eh? Give us an Oscar!”
Perhaps that’s reductive. The Imitation Game is better and less manipulative than your standard Oscar bait, no doubt, but it’s only really held together by Cumberbatch. As a tribute to Turing it’s not entirely off the mark and, if nothing else, will at least inform a new generation of his genius. It’s just a shame the film itself doesn’t reach his – or Cumberbatch’s – lofty standards.