Imitation of life

Until American Sniper took up residence in conversation and box office in January, The Imitation Game was the highest grossing film nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It still took in an impressive haul: almost a hundred million dollars in the United States alone. Every Oscar season a couple of toothless films, suitable for the matinee crowd, do this well. I never got around to writing about it in January and would’ve let it slip to the bottom of the sea except I got into a conversation about it last weekend. It prompted a rewatch. The results were grim. Aware of the mechanics of its plot and not bowled away by compensatory pleasures like performance and script, I found The Imitation Game puzzling, meretricious, and often stupid. Worse, the movie is an example of good intentions creating terrible results. A movie about twitchy British code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), convicted of indecency at the height of early fifties paranoia about Soviet spies and queers, should tell us something about code and the travails of being homosexual — indeed, tell us how two essential components of Turing’s life depended on concealment; but The Imitation Game honors its title, a shadowplay in which Turing’s adolescence, World War II work, and subsequent arrest compete for a vacant space.

The three story lines create the illusion of movement, but The Imitation Game is one of the most static of recent pictures. A montage, undeserving of the term leitmotif, of Turing out for a run and staring at mathematical formula on the wall is director Morten Tyldum’s concession to movement. I’m not sure what this movie is about besides a Famous Person and its own Oscar buzz. The schoolboy plot could have been removed without a peep; other than notes and longing glances exchanged with Christopher, the consumptive youth after whom Turing will name the code breaking machine, it has the same effect on the audience’s understanding of Turing’s sexuality as a lit flashlight in a ballroom. As for the computer, Nick Davis had the best line: the filmmakers don’t have a clue about what to do with it. A movie about code breaking could demonstrate some acquaintance with the subject. But Christopher just hums, a tin MacGuffin, orbited by men with parted haircuts furiously smoking, idle until the eureka moment. When the end notes credit Turing for inventing the computer, it doesn’t mesh with what I’ve seen: a fine-boned man looking constipated in front of ENIAC (speaking of eureka lines, my favorite: “You’ve just stopped Nazism with a crossword puzzle!”).

Matthew Goode, who played the object of desire in another homosexual sad sack movie called A Single Man that also treated its “source material” with contempt, semaphores challenge and sexual insouciance as Hugh Alexander. To show Turing and Clarke lusting after him, each aware of the other, would have upended this pointless movie. Instead, the chilling fact that Turing chose hormone therapy over two years imprisonment in 1951 is tossed away in a final scene. He’s gay enough to be sobbed over and condescended to — producers love forcing audiences to feel superior to what’s onscreen, i.e. “look how times have changed!” — but not gay enough to show him sharing a cigarette with or winking at Hugh. Reviews praised Cumberbatch at the expense of the movie, but his one-dimensional acting compounds the problem; he plays screenwriter Graham Moore’s conception of Alan Turing as a T-1000 of math, no more, no less. In a movie dedicated to presenting Turing as a gaunt weirdo martyr, the decision makes sense: Turing is not a human being but a sales pitch, and to reveal more about the product might dissuade potential buyers.

The Imitation Game is available on DVD.

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