Friday, December 26, 2014

"The Imitation Game"

 4 / 5 

If judged -- as Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing might recommend -- as a spy thriller, The Imitation Game is crisp, efficient, tense.  As a period piece, it's lush and detailed.  With almost stereotypical wartime British stoicism, it's an eminently polite and polished piece of entertainment that can hardly be criticized because it's just damned fine.

Only when it ventures into psychological territory, as perhaps befits a film about someone as precise and mechanical as Turing appears to have been, does it falter.  Though it presents itself as an incredibly true story about how a mathematician helped win World War II, it ends on a most unexpected and not entirely successful note of gay pride.  If this had been a movie about the heterosexuality of a prominent figure, The Imitation Game might be criticized for tiptoeing around the subject far too carefully, for being too, well, straight-laced.

But The Imitation Game is, in large part, about how being homosexual at a time when same-sex behavior was both illegal and immoral, and judged (again, as Turing himself would have suggested be done) in that way, it's so proper and stiff-lipped it hurts.  Sure, there's vague talk about some un-chaste things Turing might have had on his mind, but there's only one hint of his emotional relationships, and it's limited to two boys who pass notes in class and sit shoulder-to-shoulder under a shade tree.

Perhaps it's not fair to fault The Imitation Game for what it isn't -- that is, an effective exploration of how Turing's sexuality influenced his work.  But that tantalizing premise is just beneath the surface of a film that's otherwise terrific on every level.  The Imitation Game posits that Turing's entire work is based on the presumption that a machine and a person can be indistinguishable provided the machine can imitate enough patterns of a human being. (I'm paraphrasing wildly here; I'm no mathematician.) The implication: Turing could imitate a "normal" (his word, not mine) human being through imitation.

That's a fascinating premise for a film, but The Imitation Game only touches upon it briefly and tentatively.  More generally, The Imitation Game is a fantastically well-told story of the seemingly impossible effort to crack a Nazi code used to encrypt military messages.

It's brought to life with impeccable style and handsome earnestness by Cumberbatch, an actor who grows on me with every role despite his ubiquity, and particularly by Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a female codebreaker who is, generally, considered more suited to be a secretary.  Its a role that could have been overwhelmed by spunk and determination, but Knightley brings assured self-confidence to it.  She's the emotional center of a film that is generally devoid of human emotion.

Instead, The Imitation Game brings clarity and conciseness to an arcane puzzle, explaining just enough to make the less logically minded audience members (like me) feel they understand what's going on, offering a human face to the most formidable early technological challenge of the 20th century.  The Imitation Game does a fabulous job at telling a different kind of war story -- it carefully balances the machinations of espionage with the very real stakes, and marvelously showcases the politics of war.

It leaves behind, though, the nagging sensation that there was a lot left untold, deemed too scandalous or scintillating for the masses, ideas better left to intriguing end-title cards that hint at a deeper story of personal sacrifice and alienation.  It's like listening to a storyteller spin an incredible tale about a hero and the impossible odds he faced, then adding, with a suggestive wink and in a polite whisper, "And he was gay, you know."

The capper puts a completely different spin on the story, even if it doesn't detract from the intrigue that has come before.

Viewed Dec. 26, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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