Two openings, if you will:
There are those that would have you feel The Imitation Game is a bad film because it is historically inaccurate. This is a red herring, although there is a valid point lying in wait. The specifics of the story The Imitation Game presents are in fact bad, but they are not bad because they are inaccurate. This biopic of Alan Turing would be dead-on-arrival if everything it depicted was the complete truth, and it would be dead-on-arrival if everything in it were a bald-faced lie. It is a tired, cadaverously old-fashioned tale of the harms done by a stodgy, conservative society that is itself, as a film, as stodgy and conservative as any of the characters it depicts.
To play a different game from our opening about the people who dislike the film for misguided reasons: those who like it can seldom muster a claim beyond “it tells an important story about an important man”. We can all agree on the latter. Alan Turing is an important man, and it is probably important that his story be told. But The Imitation Game does not tell an important story, and more importantly it does not tell any story importantly. It is too busy telling a story in the driest, most divested, least lively way possible. That a film tells the story of an important human being is a red herring for it actually being a good film, as great a red herring as a film being historically inaccurate is for disliking it. Alan Turing was an important man, and The Imitation Game does that important man a grave disservice.
As for that story: Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British mathematician, intentfully skulks into a job interview for a position as a cryptanalyst. Initially facing disagreement and distaste by his comrades for his social ineptitude and detached, icy demeanor, he makes his unorthodox skills quickly apparent and he soon enough rises to head of the department. Set to the task of breaking the German enigma machine during WWII by cracking its cryptographic sequence for the British, he will hopefully be the secret shining knight of the British military as he gives them the gift of knowing when and where the Germans will attack at all times. While set about achieving this goal, he hires Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as one of his hotshot young talents, and their relationship complicates in rough approximation to the complications of the task of cracking the enigma machine itself. Difficult challenges both, but they are surface-level compared to Turing’s real demons, his closeted homosexuality frowned on by the British Empire, as well as what is implied may be a form of undiagnosed autism.
The Imitation Game is trapped in a liminal space. It’s a fracture of a movie that is not quite character study, not quite genuine thriller, and never amounts the strength and dogged persistence of either. At some level, it just sort of floats in one ear and out the other, never accomplishing anything and coasting along on Cumberbatch’s murderer’s row of talents. Cumberbatch, by the way, is let-down severely by a screenplay with nothing for him. He is left desperately trying to enliven the funeral parlor he’s accidentally wandered into on his way to a successful future career of (I’m sure) Oscar nominations galore. The character, and his portrayal, is a waxworks collection of ticks and idiosyncrasies where a flailing, failing human being ought to stand. He’s a mighty astute and composed actor, but the world hasn’t yet figured out how to use him to capture the nervous standoffishness he has locked somewhere within. The film prefers to trot his lanky features out like an unfortunate casing with nothing inside. Just because a man can convey smug indifference and unaware social awkwardness doesn’t mean he ought to be an excuse for films to rely on these emotions when living, breathing complication lies just below the surface. It is an easy way out, and films persist on thinking of Cumberbatch as an easy way out
At the same time, leaving The Imitation Game on the old “tired biopic with a notable performance and an important human being at the center” card actually feels like letting The Imitation Game off the hook. It is a tired old biopic like dozens of other tired old biopics, yes, but this one feels particularly musty. The directing is a wet-blanket through and through. Don’t get me wrong; this is no The Iron Lady caliber work of actively sputtering editing and off-putting shot selections a mile wide, but the evidence is not in the film’s favor. Morten Tyldum’s previous directorial feature, the wry and naughty Norwegian potboiler Headhunters benefited from a surfeit of darkly comic chills and boasted a real spring in its step. The Imitation Game, in comparison, never leaves the grave. It is a turgid motion picture, and even when it is hitting its mark (a few moments related to machinery and problem-solving, ie when “Turing the man” is as far away from the film’s eyesight as humanly possible), it never loses a certain deterministic fatalism that makes the whole affair seem more perfunctory and obvious than lively and passionate. It is very much a biopic also-ran, but it is a particularly mundane example of the form.
And this doesn’t even enter into the realm of the atrocious and borderline offensive way it ventures toward “Alan Turing the man”. Carting out a laundry list of unfortunate and manufactured mannerisms to say nothing more about him than “he is weird and doesn’t fit in” and then not even having the decency to stick to its approach throughout, it’s a shockingly inept screenplay as a work of characterization. Turing the person eludes us, and the film is not aware of this fact either. It does not wish to consciously hide from us Turing the human being in the way that he hid from society so that the film can approach a treatment of how unknowable he is as a man. We know this isn’t its game because it does occasionally gesture in the direction of exposing his more tactical, even sinister arch-competence in the way he maneuvers and plays people like chess pawns, giving us a peer inward to his true complication. Elsewhere, it genuinely tries to depict his frailer, broken qualities with a sort of “aha!, this is where we learn Turing’s true sadness” ring to it. Yet it refuses to stick to this approach either, hinting at a cornucopia of different Turings and never actually evolving any of them beyond the base and functional level of what version of the man it needs to move from scene to scene. Is he a sly dog whose idiosyncrasies reveal a deft and complex social performance, or is he genuinely a distraught, hugely malfunctioning human being left out to dry in the sun by a society that never cared to give him love?
In fact, he is neither. He’s a cog, a pawn himself, not of the world, but of a screenplay that uses and abuses him with no idea of what it wants to say about him, or who he truly is. It merely knows that he is an important person, and that Benedict Cumberbatch is an important actor, and that by combining the two, it can trick us into thinking it is worthwhile. It is cunning and devious as a work of manufactured success-in-a-hand-basket. Almost every scene is a cynical approximation where a genuine sequence ought to stand. The worst? A cringe-inducing Broadway number where Cumberbatch wheezes through a joke as the writer’s short-hand to indicate that he is a mathematician and thus must be a grotesque alien as a social human being. Or the scene where Turing is to be fired and then every member of his crew stands up in-defiance one-by-one, just so we can hear the cue-cards in the background and the rusty creaks accompanying every line. Or “sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine”, the cloyingly self-important dead-ringer for worst line of 2014 whose ear-deadening status is clarified when it is repeated ad nauseam. Was it only twice? I lost track somewhere between when I stopped caring and when the film never began trying.