We’ve now reached that time of the year where it is almost impossible to judge a film by its own merits. Yes, Oscar season is upon us once again, meaning that instead of judging a film based on whether it’s good or bad, you end up judging whether it lives up to the hype that has all but confirmed it as a locked-in awards contender. The Imitation Game, the English language debut of Headhunters director Morten Tyldum, is among the first big contenders to arrive this year after riding on the crest of a wave of hype since winning the audience award at this year’s Toronto film festival. It is not a bad film by any means – but with its awards friendly setting (London in World War II), awards friendly subject matter (biopic of an unsung historical figure, and a portrayal of being gay at a time when it was illegal) and a lead performance by an actor long due for awards recognition, it is likely for the film to just be nominated because of how “worthy” everything is, not for the quality of the film itself.
The film is a biopic of mathematician Alan Turing, whose efforts at cracking the Nazi enigma code were credited with helping an allied victory in the war. Turing was even credited by Winston Churchill as making the single biggest contribution to helping us defeat the Nazis. The film takes place in three consecutive timelines; firstly, the burglary of his house in early 1950’s Manchester, his efforts at breaking the enigma code in the war period and flashbacks to his high school days where he first became aware of his sexuality.
In the former two timelines, Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch with the same social-awkward genius routine that he does so perfectly in BBC’s Sherlock series. It seems incredibly unlikely that Alan Turing was this socially awkward in real life – and if there are any flaws to Cumberbatch’s performance, it is that he is never turns Turing into a believable character. All of his social awkwardness, such as buying apples for his colleagues in a bid to get them to like him, seems like nothing more than a product of a screenwriter’s imagination rather than anything resembling human behaviour. Cumberbatch gives the performance his all. He even manages to sell the emotional moments in the film’s 1950’s-set final scenes (the emotionally manipulative, “For Your Consideration” moments) in a way that is incredibly moving. If the film is criticised for anything, it’s that it has turned a true story into something that doesn’t ring true due to stereotypical characterisation and oft-clunky dialogue. Cumberbatch rises above this to make Turing an entertaining character to watch – but that’s all he is, a character. You are left in no doubt that the events shown onscreen never happened in this way, something the best biopics make you forget.
The casting director has made some pretty uninspired choices for the rest of the cast; all solid actors, but unanimously playing towards type. Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, the only woman on Turing’s enigma-breaking team, who is treated by every man in the film as some sort of bizarre anomaly. We’ve seen this sexist shtick rolled out in countless films before and it gets increasingly boring every time it’s trotted out; it’s more irritating here as it’s never mentioned five minutes after being introduced, giving the feeling that it was only brought up as another trope to tick off the “things that will guarantee this an Oscar” scorecard. Charles Dance and Mark Strong both play army personnel (a commander and a major general respectively) with the same slimy douche-baggery that they bring to their usual villainous roles. Both Dance and Strong get the film’s funniest dialogue, especially when they are paired up as a double act with Cumberbatch – it’s the only time when the exaggeration of Turing’s social awkwardness becomes funny and not cringe-worthy.
If I’m only talking about the quality of actors performances here, it’s due to the film not really having any notable directorial flourishes. I rather enjoyed director Morten Tyldum’s previous film Headhunters, a Norwegian dark-comic thriller that included a toilet sequence more disgusting than the one in Trainspotting. Where that film was wild and unruly, especially in terms of its bonkers plot twists, The Imitation Game feels well-mannered in comparison. Both films are crowd pleasers, it’s just this one feels calculated to be that way. This is a WWII drama, yet one of the few where actual battle sequences are unnecessary; every time we cut to aerial shots of planes bombing or submarines shooting torpedoes, it takes you out of the film, due to both the shoddy quality of the special effects and how irrelevant to the main narrative the sequences are. Again, it feels like they were included primarily because of narrative convention – we expect war movies to have battle scenes, so why can’t this one?