I want the next biopic about a super important person that I see to begin with a money shot. Like the ones in pornographic films. I feel this way not because I am particularly looking forward to the sight of Alan Turing 's face contorted in sexual ecstasy, but because the film would at least feel authentic. One thing we can be almost certain about with any famous man or woman is that they got their rocks off at some point in their lives.
I think about stuff like this because of films like The Imitation Game, which is director Morten Tyldum's account of how Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a team of cryptographers cracked the Nazi code, Enigma, and sped along the Allied victory by more than two years. This film is so buttoned-down and genteel as to be positively suffocating. Despite Turing's status as a lifelong, closeted homosexual—who committed suicide at the age of 41—the film is simply too polite to delve into the undoubtedly dark psyche of this complex, fascinating man. Instead, we receive procedural details of how Turing fought to maintain his position as a code breaker in the face of bureaucratic pressure and workplace friction.
There are allusions to Turing's inner turmoil to be sure, mostly in the diffidently hopeful glances Cumberbatch directs towards his charming male compatriot, played by the superhumanly dashing Matthew Goode. We also receive flashbacks to Turing's early days at boarding school, where he is tormented by more athletic and less withdrawn classmates. He falls in chaste, never requited love with a gentle boy named Christopher, only to lose him to tuberculosis. The next time we get the impression that Turing is endeavoring to fulfill his sexual needs is when we learn he has been arrested for gross indecency with another man. This is mid-century Britain, after all, where homosexuality was illegal and punishable by jail time (or, in Turing's case, chemical castration).
We have here yet another case of a biopic that saves all the interesting, compelling details about its subject's life either for the cutting room floor, or post-credits text. Turing may very well have been an irascible genius who couldn't help but alienate everyone around him, but the film fails to explore the idea that Turing may have behaved this way as a defense mechanism, because it was dangerous for him truly to express himself. Tyldum gives us the tedious details about the thought process behind Turing's massive, clunking code-breaking machine (wrenchingly named "Christopher," a detail that is a screenwriter's dream). We see Turing insult and lose the trust of his team members, only to gain it back when they see how much of a genius he is. This plays so conventionally that I was reminded of the gag in Family Guy when Stewie asks Brian about how his book is coming along: "Some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends?!"
So much for the more relevant and interesting aspects of Turing's personality. Thankfully, Cumberbatch's committed performance saves the film from sinking under its own portent. He plays Turing as an often flip, detached genius, too smart and above it all to acknowledge the lower beings around him. But we come to see that he is nevertheless utterly reliant on the people around him, including fellow code breaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whom he marries ostensibly to keep her from returning to her parents, but also potentially to maintain the ruse of heterosexuality. His performance is mannered, filled with tics and stuttering, but they don't feel studied and manufactured in the way that a less talented actor would employ them. Tyldum's direction, despite its fussiness, demonstrates a knack for suspense, which can be explained by his well received previous film, Headhunters. He was a logical choice for turning historical fact into a taut thriller—one scene involves a choice between saving the lives of the few and the many that is fraught with agonizing tension—but he makes a mess of the interpersonal drama.
The Imitation Game can hardly be called a wash: it's too well put together and acted to be completely dismissed. But in a long list of end-of-year films to catch up on, this one should be far from the top.