The Imitation Game review: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

‘The Imitation Game’ is a marvellous phrase which this film applies to many fields – cryptography, relationships, and what is considered normal interaction for human beings. But the title is most applicable in terms of its generic occupancy. I feel like I’m at a tipping point because before I sat down to watch The Imitation Game on Sunday evening, I’d already seen it dozens of times.

All of the requisite ingredients of the character-led drama are here: a protagonist on the margins of society who rebels against the system, a love interest, a Muse who helps him discover himself, and an antagonist who eventually accepts grudging respect. The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump…it’s a familiar story. When the protagonist is taking on a project of sorts (inevitable if they work in a scientific field), then you can expect the appropriate ‘sudden revelation’ scene where everything fits together, and it gets an obligatory airing here. The Imitation Game gives an even more specific example of such well-worn ideas in the ‘disastrous interview scene’, which observant viewers may recognise from Good Will Hunting. This leads to an inevitable conundrum. These tropes are used by Hollywood broadly in line with its political sympathies – standing up for the disenfranchised, but it becomes more and more difficult to warm to those themes when they are repeated so much and no longer hold any individuality or originality.

It feels even more galling in this instance, because there are moments where The Imitation Game points towards the film it could have been (though it may be editing/production which stifled it). The scenes where Hut 8 discuss the ethical implications of what happens when they break the code (spoiler alert) is truly powerful and thought-provoking. Indeed, the film explores ethics in general too much through the fulcrum of the awards season vehicle character-led drama. It often feels that its exploration is limited to what it reveals about the main character. The aforementioned scene feels too much like a tribute to Turning’s stern rationalism and ability to see beyond his peers, instead of a sustained exegesis of what on earth the morally correct thing is to do – the film wraps it up quite neatly in a bundle of relativistic twine.

I’m moving into the territory of talking about the film as I would have liked to have made it, rather than critiquing the vision of the director, but I truly think there are artistic gaps in this film that were ripe for developing. The protagonist is someone upon whose shoulders the world’s fate rests, making him an unusual companion to the superhero protagonists who have dominated Hollywood cinema in recent years.  Superhero comics are one of the foremost art forms at turning the marginalised in society into the stars of the show, but the ubiquity of their film adaptations in recent years has, unfortunately, injured that somewhat. In many ways it’s an overly exclusive position to take, but the sheer volume associated with those films (in viewers, sales, and number of films produced) means that as a blockbuster phenomenon, they have drifted somewhat from their ability to communicate the position of the outsider. As much as I don’t like The Imitation Game borrowing too much from genres and films which have preceded it, its subtle interaction with the superhero film gives back some of this power by focusing on a quiet man whose private life is deemed unnatural and punishable by the state.

As part of this hero’s responsibility, he has to become a master of a particular form of language, to understand communication better than anyone else. The irony is, of course, that as someone who is detached (whether by genius or something else) from ordinary human society, he finds it difficult to communicate with the people around him. This is addressed to some extent through the scene in which the code is finally cracked (and in the process giving an example of how ‘factionalisation’ can work in a film’s favour), as one of his colleagues reveals that the Germans slip up in their coding because they insert repeated personal messages. But the clue is not so much the message’s individuality but its predictability. If a German code operator repeats the name of his paramour enough times, does it remain love or does it become robotic? The other clues to the breaking – talking about the weather and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ both show examples where human conversation has an ostensibly spontaneous impetus, but betrays something more systematic underneath. Alan’s domination of the film ensures that we always consider communication in terms of systems, and thus we are forced to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about it. It’s true that the film lays these clues out for us to consider, but so much of the dialogue in the film is about Alan discovering himself and being abused by the system, it isn’t really developed as an artistic whole. There is some attention paid to the social code of communication which Alan misses, but it’s a bit too cutesy, and usually diverted to Alan’s romantic life, or lack thereof. The film puts this at the centre of attention, when there is potential to make a real concerted artistic statement at the same time.

Something else is missed, another opportunity available with the central conceit: Turing was a man riddled by secrets. He could not reveal to anyone the extent of his wartime work, nor could he speak to anyone about his homosexuality. Keeping one secret was considered to be not just a legal obligation but an honourable practice, while the other was viewed with scorn. In the flashbacks for Sherborne school, for example, the note-passing is shown as a straightforward piece of character development. This is the recurrent problem with character-led drama, the overwhelming desire to sustain sympathy for the lead character and their relationships, to the extent that thought-provoking diversions, or adding an extra layer on top, are often missed. Or when Manchester’s finest are investigating him, any investigation into this binary of secrets is only done in order to provide the undercooked frame of Alan explaining his life, the things he has done beyond the comprehension of ordinary men, to a humble police officer from up ‘North. I wanted the film to explore the definition of secrecy a bit more, and the hypocrisy of being expected to preserve secrets on behalf of the very establishment that deemed his personal secret to be worthy of punishment.

One other area where I feel the film misses a trick is in making a comment about communication, and the interception thereof, in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s monitoring program. The film is simply too ready to hold up the decoding of ENIGMA as a necessary and virtuous quest, central to the war effort, with little investigation beyond the moving scene where its statistical brutality is momentarily laid bare. The back and forth between English and German communications, constantly monitoring each other, is not mined for its potential psychological effects, it’s all really a bit of a joke. Of course, given that most of the messages are banal and mechanic as I mentioned earlier, it would be unfair to expect something akin to the vicariousness of surveillance in The Lives of Others. Nor is it my expectation that films have an obligation to make a political comment. But they do have a psychological impetus. The film is set at a pivotal moment, where widespread real-time covert engagement with human communication begins in earnest. The debate waiting to emerge from the shadows is whether a film like The Imitation Game should really try to be all of these things; whether it is too much to ask, whether it limits the enjoyment of the film, the ability to sympathise with Alan’s plight. I disagree. The film’s funnelling towards a character-driven drama, whenever it happened, left me cold. Some redemption in this regard is given by the character of Mingus, played with cruel, manipulative brilliance by Mark Strong, who steals every scene he is in. Under Strong’s influence, Mingus rises from simple antagonist (represented in the curmudgeonly establishment type by Charles Dance) to become a floating shadow, whose presence demonstrates to Turing that the house always wins. Turing by contrast is (and I hold this to be an inconsistency with the scripting rather than the acting) an unstable character, alternating between wisecracking oddball who won’t play ball, cripplingly shy wallflower, and misunderstood loner. It is as if the essences of many types of Hollywood anti-hero flow through him at once, but cancel each other out.

How do you make a subtle point about surveillance without being accused of making a cheap political shot by pretentious bloggers such as me? No doubt, it is a difficult balance to strike. But the solution I hypothesised was to conduct more of a post-mortem on exactly what Bletchley Park’s work laid the foundation of. It only had to consist of a sidelong quizzical glance, where the film momentarily cocks its head and asks ‘and how much do we think it’s necessary?’ The film’s makers put in all the steps until the final one, demonstrating how vital ENIGMA’s work was at its historical moment, but then backed away from the overhanging question, of whether a dividing line can ever be drawn between intelligence acting on the behalf of the public and the individual’s rights to privacy – given Alan’s own unique private life, it could have been very potent indeed.

But of course, most people are watching and talking about this film because it represents another step on the ladder to stardom ascended by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t as wowed by his performance as most commentators, but the role that he inhabits is a testament to how he is reshaping classical British acting. Roger Friedman’s review described him as a natural heir to Sir Laurence Olivier and this is right, but Cumberbatch has done some redesigning of the crown upon inheriting it. Olivier’s career was a sequence of stiff upper lip characters: Henry V, Hugh Dowding, Crassus – even Zeus – whereas Cumberbatch has taken the same English tradition and channelled it into portraying society’s freaks and oddballs, instilling them with a dignity that lifts them out of physical disability (Stephen Hawking), sociopathy (Sherlock) and the judgement of society as a whole (Alan Turing). Of course this reflects deeper lying changes in society, but it still needs someone to act it out. So long as he continues to be the best candidate to fulfil these roles, then he will be one of the most important actors working.

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