Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Imitation Game (2014) – Review

Review: The Imitation Game is an excellent look at a brilliant man who made enormous contributions to our free world only to be tragically brought down by hatred, fear and intolerance (and then subsequently forgotten in time).

The film is about Alan Turing, a mathematician and logician who is worked with the British armed forces and MI6 decoding the German Enigma machine, thereby giving the allies a great advantage during WWII (and saving millions of lives, if not the world). More specifically, the film is split into three sections. One that looks at Turing during boarding school as a teenager and a key relationship that shaped his life. Another that looks at Turing’s time at Bletchley Park, cracking the code with his team that included Joan Clarke and Hugh Alexander. And the third that looks at Turing’s life a few years later when it comes out that he is a homosexual to the public. He is given a choice: prison or chemical castration, as his sexual orientation was illegal under British law. He decides to take the drugs, fearing he will not be able to do his work in prison.

The Imitation Game works very well on multiple levels. Chiefly, it is an excellent character drama about an outsider trying to find his place in a society that does not seem to want him, built around the fantastic performances, especially from the film’s leads. It also plays very well as a WWII thriller, as the team works against the clock to break the code, directly contributing to the allies winning the war in Europe.

Director Morten Tyldum does a good job with both these aspects of the narrative. The character work, in particular, is quite powerful. Tyldum, along with the actors, does a very good job ingratiating the characters. The audience cares deeply about Turing (and Clarke) and wants to see him succeed. Tyldum has a difficult job, actually, with making Turing likable. For starters, he is an outsider who seems arrogant and unsociable. Plus, the audience has likely never heard of him despite his considerable contribution to the war effort and math. There is no built-in appeal; thus, the likability of the character falls completely on the performance and narrative. To this end, the performance is wonderful and Tyldum caters the narrative to make Turing also appear very vulnerable, allowing the audience to side with him. Turing resonates because the narrative and performance allow him to emote and showcase his feelings. The audience understands him and what he wants and thus sides with him.

Tyldum also uses the narrative to create supporting characters to promote Turing as well. Clarke is incredibly likable, as is Alexander. Clarke likes Turing almost right off the bat (and seeing him give her a chance, recognizing his own life struggles in her situation, also endears him to the audience) and Alexander comes around. They are likable and they support and like Turing, which subconsciously also allows the audience to like Turing (because they like Clarke and Alexander). Tyldum creates a great personal villain for Turing in Commander Denniston as well (though, how much of this is based in reality is unknown; but in terms of him being an antagonist for Turing, he works well). Denniston is so dismissive of Turing, seeming to have a personal vendetta against him that by nature the audience takes Turing’s side. It also helps that Turing is balking in the face of authority. That is a very relatable reaction in all of us (whether we get to express it as much as we want to or not).

With great characters established, Tyldum turns his attention to cracking the Engima for much of the second act. The film then becomes as much a thriller as a character piece. Tyldum excels here. The film is gripping and paced very well. Turing and his (ragtag) team (of sorts) work against the clock (both the very real one – as more British soldiers die each day fighting the Germans and the narrative one, as Denniston wants to shut down Turing and his project – a machine he is building to crack the code). Here, Tyldum turns the film into a basic puzzle solving thriller, hitting all the right narrative beats.

Through the first two acts, The Imitation Game could be taken as a feel-good character drama, but the third act reveals it as a tragedy. Turing did solve the Enigma machine and he did aid the allies in winning the war maybe more so than any other individual. Yet, his story is ultimately a very sad one. Turing’s story becomes all the more important and socially relevant today because of what he faced in his personal life.

In the early 1950s he was chemically castrated by the British Government; and subsequently, he committed suicide a few years later while self-administrating the pills designed to take away his homosexual urges. Even today in Britain and America, far too many gay and lesbian people are not given equal rights, harassed and told that they are less because of their sexual orientation. Turing, by all accounts, was a war hero and yet that did not change anyone’s mind about humiliating him and destroying his life (the Queen of England did not even pardon him until 2013!!!). Over sixty years later, things seem to be getting better, but the fact that we still do not have equal rights for all people is just sad. And, with the radicalization of the Republican party here in America (to be honest, Republicans are not really Republicans anymore; what the Republican party stands for has been warped and shifted so far to the right that I cannot believe that Republicans even want to be associated with the utter hatefulness and ignorance of the party today; it is disgusting – but not to digress too much), there is fear that maybe there is a social shift away from progress (a shift away from a world of equality and tolerance – you know things that America stands for, yet not enough people actually practice). Turing’s story is yet another rallying cry against hate, fear and prejudice – a rallying cry for personal and social freedom to be the people we are. Imagine what Turing could have accomplished in a world that fully accepted him.

The third act is emotionally effective, as Tyldum showcases the downfall of Turing as a result of taking his mandated pills. He becomes a shadow of his former self. Tyldum also uses Clarke very effectively here as well. Seeing her reaction to the state of Turing makes the emotional resonance of the drama all the more powerful.

The Imitation Game is a brilliant film. Alan Turing is a figure who we should all know about – his contribution to the world and the tragedy of his story. Tyldum balances the different narrative goals of the film very well, making a film that is compelling in every regard.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Morten Tyldum became a much in-demand director with the breakout success internationally of his great thriller Headhunters. The Imitation Game is his first English-language film. I think it is even better. Tyldum has a knack for both character and narrative. I look forward to his future films.

Aesthetically, The Imitation Game is beautifully put together. Alexandre Desplat’s score is wonderful, capturing both the gravity of Britain at war and the tension of desperately trying to solve the Enigma machine puzzle as well as the jovial spirit of scientific discovery shared between the people working to crack the code. It is a playful yet moving score. Desplat, again, has given us many of the film’s best music this year (also scoring Unbroken, Godzilla and The Grand Budapest Hotel). Oscar Faura’s cinematography is great as well. The drastic visual difference between Turing’s WWII years and the years after, the muted color palate in the latter, exemplifies the tragedy of his story. Maria Djurkovic’s production design is very good too. The film looks and feels very natural, even though it is a period piece. Her set design also showcases Turing begin shunned by society through his apartment in the years after WWII. It is a cluttered mess.

The cast is fantastic. Tuppence Middleton, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, and Rory Kinnear are all very good in small supporting roles. Matthew Goode is also very good in a small supporting role as Hugh Alexander (the multiple British chess champion and part of Turing’s team). Goode is wonderfully good at playing charming characters and Alexander is no different. His performance is quite endearing and goes a long way to making Turing likable. Alex Lawther is quite good as Turing as a teenager. He is able to convey the emotional turmoil that shaped Turing, which is a key narrative component to the film as a whole. Keira Knightley is wonderful as Joan Clarke. She brings a lot of energy and charm to a film dominated by male characters. She lights up all of her scenes and she has brilliant chemistry with Benedict Cumberbatch. In a year in which she has had four films come out in theaters (Jack Ryan, Begin Again and Laggies being the other three), she has given an array of great performances, but her work in The Imitation Game is her best of the year. She looks utterly heartbroken when she finds Turing a man crippled by the drugs he is forced to take and the knowledge that society does not accept him. Her performance in this moment breaks the hearts of the audience as well. Cumberbatch is spellbinding as Turing. He perfectly captures the conflict of being utterly brilliant but having a tough time socializing (to some extent, his work on Sherlock does inform his performance here, as they are similarly stylized characters). Cumberbatch captures Turing’s heroism and pain as well. He has the courage to think of the greater good when most of us would be selfish. To see him broken in the end, it is tragic.

Summary & score: The Imitation Game is simply a biopic, telling the story of a remarkable man – however Alan Turing’s story is not just about how he saved the world, it is also about how our ‘civilized’ world destroyed him because it perceived him as being different. His story is a cry for change – change we are still fighting for. 9/10

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