Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“The Imitation Game” plays into mimicry with an underwhelming narrative about Alan Turing

(Black Bear Pictures)
(Black Bear Pictures)

For a filmmaker, the biopic is the promised path to critical raves, to the hallowed halls of cinema’s highest awards and to the hearts of theatergoers. “The Imitation Game” treads this heavily trodden path, but stops somewhere short of the timelessness of its subject. The new Alan Turing biopic could’ve been a classic. Its bland narrative and derivativeness flip that chance on its head and instead, “The Imitation Game” goes off with more whimper than bang.

Director Morten Tyldum’s film examines Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) efforts to break the Nazis’ Enigma machine. We see the mathematical virtuoso struggle at varying stages in the non-linear narrative to connect with any of his acquaintances. He defies the chain of command, forming an enemy in Cmdr. Alastair Denniston (the always formidable Charles Dance). He insults Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and other coworkers. By alienating those around him, Turing faces a sea of opposition as he attempts to break an unbreakable code.

The synopsis suggests a great film. Turing’s tale is one of overcoming adversity, achieving greatness and facing persecution despite heroism. In this case, exhuming a legendary historical figure might revive the subject’s posthumous legacy, but it makes for a mediocre affair. Graham Moore’s script rarely rises beyond a character study that plods toward the end of its hour and 54-minute runtime.

The script frames Turing as an asocial genius who can’t understand common human interaction. He comes off as little more than the misunderstood archetype you’ve seen a thousand times. Whether it’s “Sherlock” (which also stars Cumberbatch), “Monk,” “A Beautiful Mind” or “The Social Network,” the abrasive wunderkind has been said and done. Playing into this trope without adding new layers, the script surrenders emotional and narrative punch.

Exacerbating the film’s stagnancy is its plot. Turing’s rise to the top of Great Britain’s secret military and ascension to leader of Hut 8, the group of mathematicians trying to break Enigma, fall into place mutely. The only scene that truly sticks out is when he tries to save his machine against the imposition of Denniston’s entourage. Otherwise, the mind game against the Nazis rarely feels more urgent than a game of checkers. Even a spy in their midst injects little tension.

Tyldum’s film works better in its smaller moments, such as when it focuses on Turing’s first love, Christopher (Jack Bannon), a boy he went to boarding school with. The flashbacks to tender flirting and early heartbreak cut deep. You’ll mourn alongside Turing.

I credit Cumberbatch for his performance, yet another excellent entry to a flourishing filmography. He stands out in every scene, whether it’s explaining his enigmatic genius to colleagues, revealing his sexuality to his fiancée, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), or divulging his life’s story to a detective. This is Cumberbatch’s finest performance yet.

Nearly everyone on the cast excels at their roles. Knightley shines as Clarke, a woman ahead of her time who juggles her brilliant mind and the sexist society she lives in. During her scenes with Cumberbatch, she weaves layers into Clarke’s personality, from vast empathy to hardened ambition.

Goode’s role, ostensibly Turing’s handsome and extroverted foil, escapes archetype as much as Cumberbatch’s falls victim to it. Goode presents Hugh Alexander as a charming, confident man, perhaps a womanizer, who seeks personal success. By the end, he’s so much more. He constructs a relationship with his rival that oscillates between lukewarm connection and professional respect. He doses the bland narrative with a little humor as well.

Beyond these stellar performances and deft time hopping by Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” adds up to little more than a decent biopic. Although Cumberbatch delivers his career’s best, his emotive and heartbreaking performance can’t save the hackneyed trope he’s painted into. Beautiful moments arise here and there, like Tyldum’s long take on a young Turing awaiting the return of his adolescent love. Unfortunately, these instances lie far and few between.

“The Imitation Game” serves best as an elegy for Alan Turing. His service to the world was followed quickly by persecution for his sexuality, but Turing’s tragic and painful end receives little discussion today. Underwhelming at best, the film still revives his accomplishments and mourns his persecution in an appropriately upsetting fashion, delivering his legacy to deserved international recognition.

However, the film’s pitfall lies hidden on that promised path of the biopic. So many biopics have been done now, they’re beginning to feel too similar in their styles, lessons and narratives. Therefore, while this film is a decent biopic, it feels less like a classic and more like an imitation.

Alexander Frail can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @AlexanderFrail.

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