The decision to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as unsung war hero Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014) was a canny, albeit obvious move. No doubt Cumberbatch’s performance as the shrewd and logical detective in BBC’s Sherlock was a deciding factor. Within Cumberbatch’s performance, he presents Turing as if his mind never became comfortable with the fact it had to be confined to a body, all awkward shuffles and ticks. It’s this career-best turn from Cumberbatch which helps to raise the game of this highly entertaining but technically functional British biopic. The story, based on Andrew Hodges’ comprehensive biography, darts across three distinct periods in Turing’s life.
Tyldum manages to cover Turing’s formative school days at Sherborne, his tragic post-war years and, of course, his vital war work cracking the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park. It’s during the Second World War that we spend the majority of the film. Here we see Turing with a team of fellow codebreakers, including crossword queen Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, here back on top form) struggling to crack the Nazi’s seemingly impossible messaging system. Structurally, it has to be said that Tyldum’s biopic underwhelms somewhat. A framing device featuring Rory Kinnear as a sympathetic ear affords Cumberbatch’s Turing to recount his tragic tale, which culminated in his arrest and subsequent suicide in 1954. However, whilst the narrative is fairly convoluted, the pacing is kept tight by its director.
Injections of sharp dialogue, delivered in sumptuously rich, clipped accents that would make Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson green with envy, are superb, masking the screenplay’s structural flaws. Turing is presented with humanity and humour. Often his awkward, overly logical mentality offers up the opportunity for a joke or two, particularly in scenes involving Mark Strong and Charles Dance, who appear as MI6 top dog Stewart Menzies and Commander Denniston respectively. In the shared scenes between Turing and Clarke we see the mathematician at his most vulnerable, particularly in a moment when our protagonsit reveals that he is gay. And yet, The Imitation Game never truly grapples with Turing’s sexual identity. This isn’t to say that either Tyldum or screenwriter Graham Moore actively avoid the topic of homosexuality – far from it. It’s more that, disappointingly, Turing’s sexuality is handled with kid gloves for the broadest possible audience.
Turing’s life proves a rich seam to mine with many paths to explore. The Imitation Game’s approach is successful as entertainment but not totally satisfactory in providing greater insight into its subject. The approach is ultimately too narrow in scope. For the majority of the film, Turing is shown to be alienated because of his acute intellectual acumen which helped the Allies win the war. It feels that Tyldum has missed an opportunity and has been constrained by convention, failing to capture the full complexity of Turing’s life and to navigate the deep sense of alienation that Turing must have felt being gay at a time that still enforced Victorian attitudes towards same-sex relationships. Fortunately for Tyldum, stellar performances from Cumberbatch, Knightley and a fine supporting cast elevate this slightly by-the-numbers biopic tribute.