Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: "The Imitation Game" Tries to Be Important in Safe and Uninteresting Ways

Benedict Cumberbatch
One of the reasons that World War II has remained such a prominent subject in film culture is because of the massive scope that it encapsulates. Beyond the war and killing Adolf Hitler, it was about putting aside differences to do so. With stories ranging this year from The Monuments Men to Unbroken, the diversity continues to intrigue in director Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, which focuses on scientist Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he literally cracks the code on the Nazis. For a story with a complex core, it is unfortunate that so much of the layers above it feel too conventional

There's a lot of great reasons for making a story about Turing. He was a scientist who managed to revolutionize how the war was fought. He was also battling with homosexuality, which was taboo for British culture in that time. There was so much going on that the film feels entirely warranted of trying to make an aligned comparison between Turing's hard working mindset and machinery. The performance is both immediately impersonal and mechanic, never allowing Turing's emotional complexity to feel real. True, Cumberbatch shoots for the stars as the story progresses, becoming passionate over his projects, but he never feels authentic. Instead it is the final closing cards that provide a deeper insight into his life that would make for a compelling story.

Despite the film's interest in avoiding the more complicated issues underneath the surface, it does manage to use its conventions to a great payoff. With staged military footage scattered throughout, it creates a scope of Turing's involvement, never allowing him to feel like more than a passionately closeted gay. Even his cohorts, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), manage to feel equally menial. The conversations surrounding the actions of the film may make the science more accessible to uneducated audiences, but the stakes never feel real. On top of Turing's homosexuality barely being discussed, the war never feels like an imminent threat and instead makes the British government feel like the oppressor.

The one positive is that everyone cares enough to make an adequate film that honors Turing as a hero, despite being a social pariah for his sexual attractions. It raises a lot of fascinating questions, giving Cumberbatch's performance some curious undertones that let his overacting sometimes have an emotional resonance. Along with a phenomenal score by Alexandre Desplat that manages to mix the layered machinery into a layered soundtrack full of harmonious wonderment, he creates a delightful whimsy and elevates the conventions just a little bit into thought provoking imagery for brief moments of time. It isn't enough to make the film feel like anything more than missed opportunities of a more complex figure, but it at least tries to suggest things to research.

The Imitation Game manages to hit all of the biopic cliches, including the happy ending. It doesn't necessarily feel earned nor does the smiling faces over text claiming Turing's later suicide add any emotional resonance. It plays like a thud, noticing the conflicting natures of war but never settling for more than a man and machine metaphor that is kind of interesting, but not enough to create an interesting existential drama. It works well enough to make his story work, but Cumberbatch is stilted and more bark than bite. It is a film that wants to seem progressive while also wanting to seem inoffensive and accessible. That may be where the problem lies and why it feels like a lesser biopic in a year full of intriguing ones that may not always work, but at least feel confident enough to highlight the important moments with pizzazz.

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