Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 September 2014

The Imitation Game - A Beautiful Mind Lite

Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is a real crowd-pleaser. It recently won the audience award at the Toronto Film festival, and both shows here at Dartmouth sold out quickly and easily – I know probably a dozen people who tried to get tickets and couldn't. I had to buy mine two weeks in advance in order to make sure I got one. The line was literally out the door. As I say, it's an intense crowd-pleaser, and the audience I was with just loved it; laughing at all the jokes; gasping at all the right moments; pretending to be surprised when something predictable happened; and clucking in a knowing and self-congratulatory way when the final title cards came up to tell us what happened after the events of the movie were over.

Ms. Knightley
But The Imitation Game is cheap, cynical Oscar bait through and through. It has a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, a charming supporting performance by Keira Knightley, and a tic-filled teary-eyed central performance by everyone's favorite problem-solver Benedict Cumberbatch, but this is a movie that repeats to us a series of things that we already know so that we can feel good about knowing them. And the clichés! The one of these that stands out the most is the phrase It's the one no one imagines can do anything who can do the thing no one imagines or something like that. It is repeated no less than three times throughout the film, so often that I'm surprised the Weinstein Company isn't using the phrase in its marketing.

The film follows famed Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing, and it alternates between three time periods – the early 1940s, the early 1950s (after the war), and the 1920s when Turing is a young man. This is yet another film that intends to explain a character's interesting or seemingly inexplicable behavior through recourse to a past that is unfolded to the audience slowly. In Turing's case, he was in love as a very young man and this boyhood love somehow – well, the film doesn't really say, but it had a profound effect on him, and if The Imitation Game is not really clear about any concrete effects this young man had on Turing, the film makes us think that it has unlocked something deep about Turing and his (allegedly) mysterious life.

The sequences with Turing's fellow code-breakers are fun. And every scene with Keira Knightley is delightful, but the rest of the film is just one more narrative about a single-minded genius whom no one believed but who did his thing anyway, dammit, and turned out to be right, suckas. The film is ostensibly also about the persecution of homosexuality in the 1940s and '50s, but this is more an afterthought for the film than it is anything else. We never see Turing really as a homosexual. That is, he doesn't actually have sex with anyone in the film. He keeps saying he's a homosexual, and he's told that he needs to keep that a secret and all of that, but... legally, one isn't really a homosexual if one never has sex with anyone. I mean, how would anyone go about trying to prove it? The film's version of what a homosexual is is a person who knows a secret thing about himself – not a person who, you know, has sex with other men or even fantasizes about them.

And The Imitation Game goes further: everyone keeps secrets during the war. There are spies for the Soviets and secrets kept from the military and encoded messages from the Nazis. Being gay is just one more secret in a whole series of them – a comparison the film makes explicitly in a scene late in the film. In other words, the film doesn't explore the life of Alan Turing at all. Instead it explores what might have happened if a homosexual worked for MI6 during the Second World War. Everything in this film is approached generically.

Oh, but don't listen to me. I'm just a curmudgeon. The film comes out in late November, and most everyone will probably like it. Expect Oscar nominations for the writer, the composer, and the two main actors. That seems about right. It's a crowd-pleaser. It's about World War II. And it feels very important.