TIFF Review: 'The Imitation Game'

The Imitation Game
(USA/UK, 113 min.)
Dir. Morten Tyldum, Writ. Graham Moore
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Misfits unite for The Imitation Game! This solid ensemble film nabbed the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival from the group of eccentrics united in their passion for film. It’s no surprise to see The Imitation Game take Toronto since this Oscar-friendly title bears a hearty resemblance to the 2010 TIFF-champ predecessor (and fellow Weinstein Company) title, The King’s Speech. The Imitation Game is no King’s Speech,  although it’s very much a film to admire. While The King’s Speech is inspiring thanks to the universal appeal of King George VI’s plight to find his voice, The Imitation Game doesn’t have the same level of rousing relatability, for its protagonist, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), is one prickly character.

Benedict Cumberbatch deserves full credit for making Turing such an enigmatic character, though, despite the mathematician’s off-putting abrasiveness. Making Turing hard to like is clearly the point, for much of the film figures on his struggle to relate to his peers and co-workers. It takes a long time to come around to Alan, but The Imitation Game appeals in the end and finds just the right time to make Alan’s plight a worthy one as the film finds the greater text within this landmark tale. Cumberbatch is maniacally awkward as Turing—abrupt, curt, and ego-centric—but his chameleon-like turn channels Turing’s ability to melt into the crowd as he pretends to be like everyone around him so as to avoid being signalled out for being a geek, a recluse, and, finally, a homosexual.

The latter aspect of Turing’s personality becomes a central thread of the film as The Imitation Game weaves from past to present as Turing becomes the centre of an investigation that inadvertently threatens to expose his sexual orientation, which was still a criminal offence in 1950s England. The film is admittedly prim with its dramatization of Turing’s sexuality, for it offers little about his personal life (if he even had one) aside from a budding fling in school with a classmate who introduced him to both love and code cracking. The smart script by Graham Moore thus uses Turing’s ability to mirror the habits of others and pass himself off with the crowd as a double for Turing’s own efforts to recreate the human mind in the self-computing machines he develops for the British Secret Service. This layered and dexterous film slowly pulls the audience into Turing’s mind by playing his psychology off his work and vice versa.

Turing’s breakthrough work makes The Imitation Game accessible despite his tetchy character. Turing leads a team of brilliant minds to crack the Nazis’ codes and help Britain win the war, so this talky and academic film relies heavily on the strength of its robust ensemble to keep the drama engaging. The sturdy cast meets the task more than capably, though, and makes a film about numbers as thrilling as it can be.

Cumberbatch finds an equal in Keira Knightley as Joan, who provides an unlikely ally for Alan as he struggles to win the respect of his colleagues. The Imitation Game playfully introduces Joan during an interview process in which Turing submits candidates to crack a puzzle, and Joan outshines the time set by Alan himself. Joan, like Alan, needs to play the imitation game for men to accept that a woman may perform the same work as a man, and The Imitation Game lets the plight of the mathematicians against Nazi Germany symbolize a fight for all outsiders. The Imitation Game finds its voice, its King’s Speech-y spirit, by celebrating the outsiders and people like Turing who benefit the world from their different ways of thinking.

The film also isn't afraid to take a critical perspective on Turing as he discovers the incalculable variable that separates people from computers: humanity. The Imitation Games gives Turing a rude awakening when he fails to account for human emotion whilst cracking enigma--sometimes the cold calculations of a computer offer an advantage, but there's a limitations to what one can deduce without factoring emotions and human fallibility, especially when predicting human behaviour itself becomes the endgame.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum delivers an intricately crafted film that is as elaborate and brainy as one of Turing’s machines. Handsome production values, especially the cinematography by Óscar Faura and stately costumes by Sammy Sheldon, make The Imitation Game amply favourable for the Brit pic crowd and for additional comparisons to The King’s Speech. Editor William Goldenberg keeps the action lively with the film’s effective leaps through time, and The Imitation Game has the pulse of a thriller thanks to the masterful score by Alexandre Desplat, who accentuates the enigma of Turing’s persona with an utterly entrancing score. The Imitation Game invites ample awards chatter, but it’s primarily Desplat’s work for which an Oscar is due. Oscar chatter seems inevitable now that The Imitation Game walks away from Toronto with the top prize. It might not be my personal choice for best of the fest, but there’s no denying that this is a smart and solidly made film.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.