The phrase ‘Oscar bait’ is starting to lose all meaning. Does it mean film’s made solely to win Oscars, like The Iron Lady? Is it a label applied to anything fitting the academy’s pre-existing tastes, like Schindler’s List? Or just an cheap putdown for anything you consider pretentious?
The Imitation Game is exactly the sort of film this label gets attached to, being a relatively light and easy take on a difficult subject matter, featuring great performance from its leads who will undoubtedly go on to gather nominations and coming hot on the heels of the last ‘this only won because the academy has no testicles’ film The King’s Speech (which for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed). But is it fair?
The film is the story of Alan Turing, the late mathematical genius who cracked the German Enigma code, helping the Allies to win World War II, but who was prosecuted a decade later for being gay and killed himself not long after. A very delayed pardon came from the British Government last year, but it remains a deeply shameful chapter in British history.
Turing’s life is depicted here in three chapters: Alan at school falling in love for the first time, his work cracking Enigma at Bletchley Park during the war, and his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1953. The final chapter is mostly used as a wraparound story, with Turing revealing his life in the interrogation room (with the movie beating ‘this guy is the audience proxy’ into our heads with a piledriver) but it’s all for naught as the voiceover only tells us only what we could easily infer from the images onscreen, the framing device never mentions his school days and it catches up to itself 3/4 of the way through, but the film keeps jumping timelines until the final scene. It almost feels like a reshoot out of fear the audience wouldn’t keep up with the chronology.
The approach to each chapter is disappointing to say the least. His school days and falling for his classmate are portrayed decently, with a standout performance from newcomer Alex Lawther who is largely why this sequence has any meaning. It could be easily cut from the film entirely as the only way it informs the other chapters is telling us why Turing named his codebreaking machine Christopher. Or it would, were that not a blatant fabrication by the writer. Any cursory research (or a tour of Bletchely Park that you come away from with an Alan Turing Monopoly set motherfuckers!) tells you the machine was named the ‘Bombe’, making this section not only pointless but a little insulting in its blatant attempts to tug on heartstrings.
It also brings up another major problem with the film, which is that it’s so fucking chaste. Turing’s sexuality is a major part of the narrative but while it’s spoken of repeatedly it’s never felt. There is no sexual tension and aside from the school section you never see Turing in a remotely intimate situation with anyone. When your film is less sexual than a Christopher Nolan picture, it’s not a good sign. The film actually tries to play his sexuality as a reveal (thankfully before the half-way point) and the Bletchley section is largely focused on his (non-sexual) relationship with a female colleague. Turing’s actual openness about his sexuality (source: my tour guide) is ignored in favour of him him keeping it secret (and being blackmailed by a man he likely never met), which is taking the old 90’s ‘not too gay’ route if I’ve ever seen it.
Bletchley Park makes up the majority of the movie as we see Turing and the other codebreakers of Hut 8 build his Enigma-cracking computer. This section most embodies the film’s greatest flaw, which is just how unambitious and unexceptional it is. Graham Moore’s script leaves no cliché unturned, and his attempt at the next ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ is like sandpaper to the eardrums. Director Morten Tydlum started working in Scandanavian television and he makes everything feel like a TV movie. Nothing about the direction stands out or is notable in any way, save for the constant cutaways to anonymous scenes of warfare in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes.
It almost goes without saying that Cumberbatch is excellent here and if he wins his Oscar for this I will not begrudge him. His natural gift for introversion works for the solitary character, whose extreme literalism he makes believable despite the sheer weight of jokes trying to crush that (he comes across like Drax). In the final part of Turing’s story he conveys the loneliness and despair of a man whose life is crushed before his eyes well, though much of the 1950’s segment is rather pointless. It’s framed as a detective story of a policeman investigating a mysterious break-in at Turing’s flat, furthering the script’s insistence on crowbarring this into a closet story by making the burglar a prostitute Turing was seeing, who he refuses to discuss with the police. In reality the burglar was an acquaintance of Turing’s boyfriend, and Turing’s free admission of that relationship to the police was what got him arrested. Aside from this point there is little to say about the sequence save for the ending, as it largely functions as the previously-mentioned framing device.
But now we get to that ending, because when faced with the telling the story of a man who was destroyed by the country he helped save, the filmmakers have decided to cop out. The film’s closing scene has Turing’s friend Keira Knightly visiting him following his conviction and chemical castration by the courts, and amidst his despair over the ruination of his life she consoles him with the reminder of how much he brought to the world. A reasonable statement you may be thinking, but she’s talking to the audience as well. Yep, the filmmakers have decided to end this on an inspirational note. Turing’s suicide is relegated to text at the end, a little ‘Oh by the way, he killed himself’ so as not to offset the upliftingness of it all. This is nothing short of a disgrace, as if Grave of the Fireflies ended with the kids playing by the riverbank, with nothing but a title card to say ‘Everything went to shit later’.
The Imitiation Game is an uninteresting, unexceptional and at times insulting retelling of the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest geniuses. It is a film sure to be talked of on release in worthy, admiring terms, win a bunch of awards and then vanish into the collective ether within five years. There is little of any lasting value here and so, in the end, it is nothing more than Oscar bait.