Playing it Safe, by Scott Nye
A good General Principle for making a film about a genius is that those making it better be pretty damn sharp themselves, or at least unafraid to fake it fiercely. The Imitation Game is not a very sharp film. It’s also not a particularly emotionally engaged one, nor does it – save from a brief section of inspiration – seem terribly charged by the story it is telling. It lies flatly for the bulk of its running time, content to slowly reveal a series of facts in the manner of a Wikipedia entry, content in its certainty that those facts alone will be galvanizing enough. A few certainly are. What lingers, however, is not the facts themselves, but the mundanity of their presentation.
We begin at a few points, which will be clumsily intersected in the ensuing two hours. In the 1950s, a police inspector is looking into the records of one Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), while in the late 1930s, Turing is hired by the British government to join a team working to decode a complex code system, known as Enigma, that the Nazis use to pass intelligence. More distantly, we see Turing’s boarding school years, but we’ll get to that later. The collusion of these time periods is purely for our benefit, the transitions between them encouraged not by narrative, character, aesthetics, or themes. There’s no entry point. The awkwardness of the structure may seem a relatively minor point, but the result is that much of the film, especially in its first half, never really gains momentum, despite a collection of potentially compelling scenes in which the abrasive Turing (who exhibits characteristics one might, today, associate with Asperger’s syndrome) attempts to work not alongside, but in spite of, his fellow team members.
That the film only really clicks in its centerpiece scene, in which Turing finally uncovers the secret to deciphering Enigma – by means of what could not unreasonably be called the first computer – is revealing. Prior to that point, writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum found ways to condense the incredibly complex mathematics into a series of easy-to-comprehend logic puzzles, and in so doing also condensed the tremendous depth of intelligence at play. Once you make it easy enough for all audiences to understand, you also diminish the accomplishment of solving it. The “Eureka!” moment makes for a tremendously exciting miniature set piece; why does the momentum dissipate so quickly? The aftermath of their revelation opens a moral problem even more difficult than their espionage assignment, but one that is barely dwelled upon in any substantial way. Like most everything else in the picture, it is acknowledged and abandoned. Rather than adding to the drama, this element – and others, not the least of which is Turing’s homosexuality, outlawed in the era in which he lived, and for which he would endure harsh punishment – is presented as a subplot, a B-story that doesn’t inform the larger picture but seems the topic of its own short film.
Cumberbatch, who has been touted as a major Oscar contender since the film premiere at Telluride, does some fine, well-mannered work, fashioning his performance as a supporting one where the picture was in desperate need of a lead. Turing is at once the film’s center and its most remote subject, neither the actor nor the director able to investigate his mind in moments of quiet, only showing him to us in relation to others. This structural conceit severely handicaps Cumberbatch’s potential, though the actor seems complicit in reducing Turing to a brilliant man who simply doesn’t get along well with others, but has no interior life of his own. The film deals with his homosexuality in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way, but only superficially. Each character who learns of it is remarkably accepting, considering the era and all, but it’s never an active component of the story. Sexuality is a source of neither inner conflict nor inspiration.
The one exception to this is a distant flashback to Turing’s boarding-school childhood, when he intimately befriended a fellow classmate, to whom he was on the verge of confessing his love when they were permanently separated (an event tipped well in advance of its revelation by Turing naming his Enigma-cracking machine after this friend). He’s never shown never acting on – or even having – feelings for any other men. He speaks of past lovers, but only in passing. Yet he expresses no regrets or uncertainty regarding his sexuality. Was he just put off of romantic attraction altogether after losing his friend? Does he compartmentalize his libido into a series of discreet encounters? Does he loathe himself? Is he ecstatic about it? How does he feel about his sexuality? The Imitation Game never investigates. Its Turing is yet another in an endless string of Tragic Gay Men of which Mainstream Quasi-Liberal Cinema seems to never tire. It has no active interest in the emotional life of its ostensible subject. It’s happy to address the suffering Turing endured at the hands of the state for being gay, but is scared to death of actually exploring his gay life, which, in turn, undermines the tragedy. He’s the film’s object, when he needed to be its subject.