As The Imitation Game opens, Benedict Cumberbatch, in deeply engaging form here, asks that a particular kind of attention be paid to what he is going to say to avoid missing something. Twice he asks you to pay attention. There are interlocking and singularly common qualities germane to life as an academic that are seen as peculiar by almost everyone else in life: intensity of focus to the exclusion of all else, and the lighting fast connections between the 'global' and the 'local' (to use my urban planning terminology as apt metaphor) that occur in constantly oscillating fashion within the minds of those whose job it is to think. Often when these tendencies appear in a character, they are portrayed in slightly or exaggeratedly freakish fashion, and this is one of those movies. However, it is also a film concerned with different types of attention, and to that end I am a huge fan.
Thus I fought off my two year long urge to dismiss this film as only 'Oscar bait' and satisfied my need for a break from the intensely particular talents of Benedict Cumberbach. I swear he is the acting equivalent of an intensely rich flourless chocolate cake - the first slender slice is delightful, but one needs time, days between slices or the taste loses its surprising, satisfying attraction. Anyway, I first re-watched the intriguing but extra-faulty/fake version of Turing's story, Enigma (2001). Yes, I own a copy of the film, it sits on a shelf with my copy of Proof (2005) and Sphere (1998) and Contact (1997) in a section I should just label "Films That Make Science Seem Sassy." Often overly melodramatic, Enigma features a Dougray Scott guilty here of scenery chewing only slightly less hammy than his villain role in Mission Impossible II (2000). Enigma nonetheless features Kate Winslet in a lovely turn as a code-breaker extraordinaire who had the misfortune to be born female and brilliant in the 1930s. In retrospect this film fails to provide not only the truth of what happened at Bletchly Park involving breaking Enigma code, it also fails to provide a narrative that one can become emotionally invested in.
Not so for The Imitation Game. The reviews I have read seem to believe the film avoids complicating the true character of Turing in favor of narrative brevity and neatness, and this is certainly the case in most studio biopics, but seems less true here. Additionally, and most interesting for me is the usually astute Dana Stevens over at Slate whose review accuses the film of neglecting to do things which it does in fact do, and of treating the audience like remedial learners when in fact I felt that it demands that one stay checked in, attention wise, or miss things. And we're back to paying attention.
What makes this film stand out to me is that it was not comfortable, as some films are, with showing what the code-breakers were doing out of context. Their work and conversations are juxtaposed with scenes of soldiers and citizens missing limbs, people packed deep under ground subject to the flickering uncertainty of tunnel lights, ships destroyed at sea, a woman scraping the bottom of a large pot for one more taste of food. Hollywood fare is the worst about beating one over the head with an idea, so it was nice that the film only featured one scene focused on the fallout from their actions while often filling the screen with images of carnage. Shortly after breaking the Enigma code, a member of the team realizes that his brother will probably die as part of an attack on a convoy of British ships full of civilians, and begs in tears for the team to chance revealing that they have broken Enigma to save his brother. This they cannot do, and the revelation of why is disclosed perhaps too quickly for some, but it becomes clear here and as the movie continues that there is a high human toll to winning the war. This is a delicate balance all films of this kind must strike between comment and display, showing and telling. Without commentary to couch stakes, perhaps some missed that the movie is aware of them.
Attention. I began this review touching upon the way mental life functions for an academic, and this is the way in which to critique what the film is doing. For example, this film does portray Turing as perhaps on the spectrum somewhere around Aspergers - are most brilliant people on the spectrum, or does mental brilliance appear similar to Aspergers? But if one were to view the events through is perspective instead of those in the film who critique him as strange, judge, slap, and abuse him, the film takes on a different resonance. Perhaps in real life Turing was far more jovial and engaging, but the film wants to make clear the isolation attendant upon seeing clearly where others do not. Early on the team is breaking for lunch one afternoon and attempts to lure him from his work, but his singular focus renders his answers to their questions stilted, brusque and ultimately silly. We are then left with the back of Turing's head and the laughter of the departing team. This is a man different from most and for whom no one has made allowances. An apt critique of the film would consider the frequency with which he is set up as the butt of a joke without any recourse to why he acts as he does.
For example, in talking to the Commander of the program, he is chastised for his brusque demeanor, demand for resources, and insistence that he knows what to do to break the code. Its as if Turing is the only person in the war effort not allowed to feel the pressures of a need to break the code and act on it quickly. Its a moment that overshadows the entirety of the film, an oddly anti-intellectual bent that tints almost everything that occurs. When the Commander tells him he is no longer in university and wars are won through chain of command, its a moment that feels out of joint. I do not doubt that such moments do occur, but even accounting for the hindsight of knowing that Turing was successful, this brush off of the ideas of what even he the Commander had declared a prodigal talent, feels odd. Doesn't he want to win the war? It is almost as if the characters within the film itself were part of who Turing was asking to pay attention in the beginning and only the always stellar Mark Strong's MI6 Menzies agent appears to be doing as asked.
Again later, in his relationship with Joan Clarke there is the need to pay attention and Joan does not. I have to admit, I have not cared for a Keira Knightly performance since Love Actually- the last time she seemed not to be constantly posturing, posing, and nearly imploding (her cheeks at least) with her own self importance. However, this acting behavior of hers seems right for Joan, the at once brilliant and charming but equally provincial, uninspired, and anti-empathetic sole woman of the group. After a visit from the MI6 agent Menzies, Turing approaches Joan. He is in fear for how many secrets and lies are floating around beyond his control - variables unmoored and unpredictable, a nightmare for a mathematician - and how they might cause her harm. His care for her is clear as he suggests she go back home and find another fianceé - it had only been a situation of convenience so his suggestion feels less coo-coo.
Joan's proposal is that they go ahead and get married since most married couples are not so well matched of mind and caring about each other as they are, even if he is gay. Here in a final effort to get her to go home, in almost cliché form, Turing says he does not care for her and never has. She slaps him and says everyone is right, he is a monster! While I am completely on board with her telling him that this work is the most important she will do in life and she's not leaving, this is not the first time when Joan is needlessly cruel to Turing, and that feels unnecessary. Perhaps Knightly's performance is to blame and in more capable hands these exchanges would have taken on less shrill and more nuanced tones. But if you pay attention, there is no shaking the fact that Turing is attuned to a lot more than those around him suspect and is less narcissistic than focused on the task at hand.
And luckily the film does allow Turing to learn from those around him a bit more of the social nuances and behaviors that lubricate interactions. And with Joan's help in her less biting moments, he lets the team in and their collaboration is what finally completes the machine. Could the film have taken more time to describe how the machine functions and how Turing et. al. worked through the problems of adapting the Polish machine to the purposes of Britain's need to break Enigma? Sure. But as Screen Junkies made clear, too much math in a serious movie can become comedic fodder and dislodge one from the fantasy. I usually view films of this kind as the entertaining wikipedia summary version of a story where you then seek out the full book-length story later, and at the end I immediately did research to see what was Turing's contribution to mathematics and how his work was applicable to the development of computers.
Finally, I have read reviews where they complained of the film playing down his actual actions as a gay man at the time. In reality, Alan Turing openly but unsuccessfully came on to men, told his co-workers that he was gay, participated in the Bletchly Park Pride Parade, etc. However, I found it refreshing for him to be portrayed as gay without the perhaps 'authentic' but needlessly flashy show. Somehow it naturalized the idea of him being 'born this way' in the way that the sexual orientation of straight folks is naturalized. There is a scene of his integrity being compromised by the Soviet spy because the threat of exposure for a gay man would mean a prison sentence, and one could critique the film for too neatly solving this problem via MI6 awareness of the spy. The threat of exposure is only allowed to hover for a few minutes before being swept away and replaced by what the film feels is his more important return to work- statistically fighting to win the war by letting many die.
Yes, his being gay is why he was persecuted, investigated, convicted, and forced to take freakin' estrogen injections for a damned year! But, if as argued by some scholars of Turing's life his being gay wasn't all the doom and gloom that Hodges 1983 biography and the film portrays and that is assumed to be the real life case and cause for his suicide - if he even did commit suicide - then this film does a fairly good job of making Turing's attraction to men just another element of the brilliant mathematician he was. Is this a film about a brilliant math professor or a man persecuted for being gay in 1950s Britain? Perhaps Imitation Game was never going to be successful at showing both sides and there is a film out there that is only his personal life, training for marathons and dating.
This review is not a celebration of Imitation Game as a perfect or great "biopic film," especially since this one is fatally flawed if you are seeking the truth of Alan Turing's life. Instead this is a celebration of a somber but
keen portrayal of both the quality of life for a singularly brilliant
mathematical mind that others fail to give the benefit of the doubt because he's a bit strange, and what great injustice is made possible by his status as a gay man in times of overt prosecution.