Monday, December 22, 2014

Unraveling Mysteries

The Imitation Game is an engrossing film that deals with solving mysteries of various sorts. On the surface level, there is the puzzle of the German war code that must be solved if England and the Allies are to win World War ll. There is also the mystery of how Alan Turing, the leader of the team assigned to unraveling this code, has to deal with the fact that he is a homosexual, who must, for all intents and purposes, hide this fact, for fear of retribution and possible punishment. It's a valuable film experience, one that has its slip ups at times, but one that ultimately succeeds in its quest to tell the story of this complex and troubled individual.

Right from the beginning of this story, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) lets his superior know how valuable he is as a brilliant mathematician for the ultimate goal of solving the German Enigma machine that sends out coded messages that have proven impossible to decipher, as there are tens of millions of possible combinations of letters. Cocky and moody, Turing is disliked by his fellow team members; Turing himself believes that some of them are not worthy of this demanding task. He takes the step of contacting Winston Churchill to request that he be the leader of this project, thus enabling him to fire and hire others as he pleases. He is granted this request, as well as an appeal for funds, so he can build a machine that will read the coded messages; this machine was one of the first computers.

His method of hiring new agents for his project is to run a difficult crossword puzzle in the newspaper; those who solve it are invited to come on for another word test. One of the individuals who passes this test - in record time - is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who will soon win the heart of Turing. It is her intellect and charm that win Turing over and help him continue with his work. She convinces Turing to be a bit more understanding with his fellow code solvers, so as to win their trust. Their relationship is at the heart of this film.

There have been any number of critics that have complained about historical inaccuracies in this film. For my part, I don't care if there has been some alteration of specific events; this is a filmed version of this story and not a documentary. The filmmakers are most interested in Turing's story and personality - how did he create his machine, how does he, as a gay man, handle himself in a relationship with a woman? Yes, I would have liked to learn more about the inner details of his machine - the reproduction is fascinating with all those wheels and wires - what is going on here and how does it work? That is a problem, but the screenplay more than makes up for this shortcoming by focusing more on Turing himself.

As Turing, Cumberbatch is brilliant portraying this complex and troubled man. His face captures us and makes us feel empathy for the mathematician; his voice is quiet, yet assured and his mannerisms avoid the usual clich├ęs. He walks a tightrope between self-assuredness and doubt that he can solve this project; when he has moments of success, they are quiet triumphs for the most part; Cumberbatch communicates Turing's emotions beautifully, either by a subtle shift in posture or movement of his eyes. This is an outstanding performance - the actor's work is the strongest recommendation of this film. You never see his acting technique on display - he's simply believable every moment he's on the screen.

The other notable performance is by Knightley. The camera loves her face; she is able to win us over the first time we see her on screen. She has excellent chemistry with Cumberbatch (and in reality, everyone else in her scenes) and is the voice of reason and well as a warm ray of light as opposed to the coldness of Turing in many scenes. One wishes however, that she was given more to do than what's written for her in the screenplay.

The one major fault I have with the film is the implementation of flashbacks of Turing's school days as a young man. We learn that he was mistreated by many of his classmates, who found him an outsider, based on his odd behavior (one scene has him separating the peas from the carrots on his plate). We also discover his relationship with another quiet boy who has an intellect similar to that of Turing. These scenes really explain little - save for one defining moment; it would have been better to eliminate these scenes, as the screenplay as well as Cumberbatch's performance tell us all we need to know how singular the character of Alan Turing truly is.

Thankfully the strengths of The Imitation Game far outweigh its flaws. Morton Tyldum's direction is effective and concise, while the cinematography of Oscar Faura and the costume designs of Sammy Sheldon are particularly handsome and appropriate. This is a film of priorities; Turing had to sacrifice his personal pleasures for the good of his country; ironically, his country punished him later in his life. This idea carries the film and carries it well; life for all of us is full of disappointments. It's how we deal with them that makes the difference.

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