The Imitation Game (2014) – Morten Tyldum

THE IMITATION GAME

Something this movie has going for it: we all love games. I’m thinking about Ender’s Game, the Hunger Games trilogy, Michael Haneke’s 2007 thriller Funny Games (which I unexpectedly loved), and the horrific but popular Saw movies. There’s something thrilling about a game with high stakes—a pastime from childhood that’s thrust suddenly into the adult world. The concept has so much intrigue! And Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, while not technically about a game, hits that sweet spot.

London, 1939. “The game was quite a simple one,” mathematician Alan Turing tells us. “Every single German message, every surprise attack, every bombing run, every imminent U-boat assault—they were all floating through the air. Radio signals that any schoolboy with an AM kit could intercept. The trick was that they were encrypted.” The film is based on a true story—the Germans were using a machine called Enigma to encode their messages, and it had so far been impossible to crack. Turing (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) was hired with a team of cryptographers to do the impossible: to break Enigma and win Britain the war. Alexandre Desplat’s score pulses thrillingly as the cryptographers examine the Enigma machine and wrap their minds around the parameters of their task.

Evoking this sense of exhilaration is perhaps what The Imitation Game has done best. That and casting Cumberbatch, who’s won himself quite the cult following over the years, and not without reason. Cumberbatch, I’m coming to realize, has a Cate Blanchett–like ability to physically transform himself to suit his current role: his voice, his mannerisms, even his appearance change drastically from film to film. Here he is effeminate, stiff. This film is full of pale, slender, intelligent Englishmen, and Turing is the palest, slenderest, and most intelligent of them all, brilliant in his field but stumbling through conversations, and coming off as flustered, hostile, and arrogant in turns. But he’s also lovable in his vulnerability. Cumberbatch is marvelous to watch, earnestly determined in his attempts to build the world’s first computer, breathing life into a somewhat stilted screenplay.

Because, despite having a fantastic premise, writing ends up being this film’s weakest point. As my roommate pointed out when we were watching it together, this is an incredible story. It would be difficult not to make this movie exciting. They had their work cut out for them. Still, the writing falters. The script errs on the side of cheesy and cliché. The running theme—“Sometimes it’s the very people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”—is cloying, and it only becomes more so each time it’s repeated. And we’ve seen the socially-awkward-genius story done so many times (A Beautiful Mind being a prime example—also Amadeus, and the BBC series Sherlock) that it’s hard not to spot familiar tropes in Turing’s scenes. This is the part where he’s rude and off-putting in his interview, but they’ll hire him anyway because of something he’ll say right before they push him out the door. This is the part where he polarizes his coworkers, but they’ll still unite behind him in the end. These scenes don’t feel fresh; they feel formulaic.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 3.58.54 PMThat being said, it is refreshing to have a mainstream film with a gay main character where his sexuality is prominently featured. My current obsession is the fact that gay characters rarely display physical affection in films (I recently watched Craig Johnston’s 2014 film The Skeleton Twins and was disappointed to see Kristen Wiig having multiple sex scenes with male partners, while her gay brother, played by Bill Hader, wasn’t even given a peck on the lips by his male romantic interest—go on, throw a gay kiss in, we won’t cover our eyes and yell, “Ewww!”), but in this case, Turing’s lack of physical intimacy is actually pretty appropriate. Isolation, particularly Turing’s, is a big theme of the film: isolation in one’s sexuality, social tendencies, top-secret career. And that theme is carried out effectively—indeed, heart-wrenchingly. There are vivid flashbacks between a young Turing (Alex Lawther) and his schoolmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who becomes the love of his life, although it is never consummated and he could never really share it with anyone. (Turing later goes on to name the machine he’s building Christopher, which, as The New Yorker aptly pointed out, is an invention of the film’s and gives the whole project an unsettling Frankenstein vibe.) Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during Turing’s lifetime, and he was eventually condemned to chemical castration for his homosexual tendencies, leading to his death. Turing contributed to the modern world in an incredible way, but his personal life was riddled with pain and conflict, and the film would not be complete without including that part of his life.

And so we come to the other great flaw of the film, which is a problem in many biopics: how do you sum up an entire life in two hours? Is it possible to do effectively? (Spoiler alert: Yes. Go see A Beautiful Mind.) What I found with The Imitation Game was that the tone was emotionally dissonant, especially at the end. Is the film meaning to celebrate Turing’s incredible achievements, or to reveal the horrific way he was condemned for his sexuality? It’s confusing, messy. And not deliberately messy. It has the messiness of something that’s been shoved into a box that doesn’t quite contain it. While it’s important to include both the high points and the low points of Turing’s life, that story deserves a structure that incorporates both of those things coherently—or doesn’t attempt to incorporate them at all. Instead, they are haphazardly tied together with a perplexingly neat Hollywood bow.

The Imitation Game is a fun watch—at least at first. Then it is a stressful watch. Then it is a heartbreaking watch. Performances from Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley render the script more believable (sadly, the same can’t be said for my true love Matthew Goode, who does little but smolder and drop snide one-liners—although that’s not really his fault, the script doesn’t give him much to work with), and the story is an important one to tell. The overall effect comes up a little bit short, but I’ll give them this—biopics are a tough code to crack.

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Atonement (2007) – Joe Wright

ImageWhat a beautiful, stressful film.  Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious 13-year-old, witnesses her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her lover Robbie (James McAvoy) together, and her response has long-lasting impacts on all three of their lives.

There were some things that I really liked about this film.  I liked the way the story unfolds.  Several scenes are shown twice, from two different perspectives.  Through the window Briony sees Cecilia furiously taking off most of her clothes and climbing into the fountain, then emerging and staring at Robbie, and then storming off.  The next cut takes us back through Cecilia’s point of view, and we see the scene in more detail.  We experience the tense dialogue between Cecilia and Robbie as they walk to the fountain.  We see Cecilia’s anger when Robbie accidentally breaks the vase, and we watch her impulsively dive into the fountain to retrieve the missing piece.  We sense the sexual tension when she emerges, soaking wet, and becomes suddenly self-conscious.

This is a clever trick that is used several times, and it has the effect of both aligning us with Briony’s point of view, and also separating us from it.  We see the world through her eyes first: the confusing interaction at the fountain, the sexual scene that she intrudes on in the library, Robbie’s arrest as she sees it from an upstairs window.  We, briefly, know only as much as Briony knows, and we identify with her point of view.  But we are subsequently provided with more information as we see those scenes in full, and Briony’s perspective is reduced to that of a confused child when we know what is really going on.  Since this is a story about what a child saw and how she reacted to it, I thought that this method of conveying the story was both clever and appropriate.

I also liked the way diegetic and nondiegetic sound were used throughout the film.  The score was peppered with the percussive sound of typewriter keys—a choice that I appreciated especially at the end of the film, when we discover that everything we have seen so far has been a part of Briony’s novel.  She has literally typed out everything that we are experiencing, so I thought it was brilliant to have the sound of typing be a part of the score.

At other points the diegetic and nondiegetic sound coalesced: Cecilia reaches down to pluck a string of the piano, and the note she plucks is in perfect pitch and time with the score.  When Robbie’s mother slams repeatedly on the hood of the police car as they take Robbie away, her thudding becomes rhythmically incorporated into the score.  Moments like this were interesting to me because they emphasized the idea of the entire world of the film—the score, the actions of the characters—being contained in Briony’s novel.  Rather than giving us the impression that we are watching real events, we are constantly reminded that everything in the film is a construction, a story being told to us.

On the other hand, something that I did not like about this film was how completely unlikeable I found all the characters to be.  Robbie has a little bit of depth, at least at the beginning of the movie.  There is a sweetness and a childishness about him.  He laughs inappropriately when he breaks Cecilia’s vase in the fountain—laughs even in the face of her obvious outrage.  He types out a crude, sexual line to Cecilia in a letter and makes himself laugh out loud, with no intention of ever sending it to her.  (Alas…)  And there is the other side to him, the more serious and sincere side.

Unfortunately it seems that all of Robbie’s likeable qualities evaporate once he is sent to prison and then the army.  (Understandably.  His life is miserable.)  He is transformed into this sad, hollow, aching man, and he seems suddenly two-dimensional.

Cecilia is utterly cold throughout the film.  Keira Knightley is beautiful (although bony, my god!) but otherwise impenetrable.  Even the way she walks struck me as inhuman, with her shoulders pulled up and her arms out behind her.  I found her relationship with Briony to be lacking in affection, and her relationship with Robbie to be stiff and awkward.  I suppose a lot of what I interpreted as awkwardness is supposed to be sexual tension and suppressed passion, but it just didn’t read for me.  I found it hard to really invest myself in Cecilia and Robbie’s love story when I didn’t particularly care for them as characters.  Their story was passionate, certainly, and it was sexy, but they were both just so miserable that I didn’t want to root for them.

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Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is a flashback in which Robbie recalls Briony jumping into a lake so that he will save her.  She is delighted when he does, beaming as he drags her out of the water, and we suddenly realize that Briony has feelings of her own for Robbie.  She thanks him for saving her life, and he calls her a “stupid child”—which is perfect, because not only is he furious and oblivious to her feelings, but he also infantilizes her.  A child is exactly the opposite of what Briony wants to be in Robbie’s eyes.  Briony is also wearing a swimsuit and cap, just as Cecilia wears earlier in the film, and she looks particularly childlike in comparison to her glamorous older sister.  This scene really changed the lens through which I saw the whole story.  To think that Briony is motivated by her own crush on Robbie modifies everything that we have seen so far.  It is also the most humanizing moment for Briony up until this point.  For the first time in the film, I actually felt sorry for her.

Overall, an overwhelmingly British movie.  A lot of tea.  A lot of quick, quippy dialogue, tempered with scenes of quiet, contained angst and meaningful eye contact.  The whole film was a little depressing for my taste—it was so pessimistic that I ended up with a “so what” feeling at the end.  This, unfortunately, I think had to do with the lack of connection that I felt with the characters.

Things I will say for the film: it was sexy.  And beautifully shot.  But my god, what on earth kind of a name is Briony?