The Imitation Game

By Tim McEown

Mailed on December 30, 2014

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Dear Alan Turing

Dear Alan,

In your lifetime, you were as impenetrable and enigmatic as the oracular machine you are most famous for reverse engineering. The Imitation Game is a relentlessly competent attempt to understand you as a person while also deconstructing that pivotal moment in history when you managed to break Nazi Germany’s most important code machine.

There it is, though—“relentlessly competent” sounds like half a compliment. And it is. There was something lacking in this film. It felt like a compromise between subjects: the endlessly fascinating story of how Enigma was cracked, and your very personal trials and tribulations. Both are worth an hour and fifty-four minutes of screen time, and both are certainly well-represented. But neither felt like they were investigated and explained in a way that was anything more than perfunctory.

In the manner that some biopics feel shallow despite the lead character eating-up all the available screen time, I felt cheated in some fundamental way at the end of this film. Here is one of the pivotal characters of the twentieth century, a singular person of real significance, yet I feel I know little more about him than if I had read a moderately competent 3000-word essay.

It’s far too easy to second-guess something as fragile and complex as a feature film – especially one that takes on such a heady mix of subjects – however, I really feel like something essential was lacking, some connection to who you were as a person, something more than just the tortured genius or shunned deviant. Part of the difficulty in adapting a story like yours is figuring out where to begin. Your history is essential to what you did as an adult, but that’s always a fraught exercise onscreen; flashbacks are too easily expressed as clunky backlighting. So often with historical biopics, we essentially get a highlight reel: names, dates, significant moments and interactions. To really succeed in the time allotted, a film requires a level of nuance that The Imitation Game, while exquisitely shaped, doesn’t ascend to.

Perhaps more than most people, you deserve the cinematic equivalent of a long form essay. You are someone worthy of six-plus hours of screen-time. You require that depth of characterization and backstory. Strong cases have been made for how some subjects beg for the kind of depth you can only achieve with a mini-series, and I can’t think of a better example than this.

Certainly the performances were adept, the cinematography lush but restrained. And there was little to complain about onscreen. I suppose it was what wasn’t there that irked me. I would have liked to have seen more of the essential you and your life and less of the highlight reel. Ultimately this was a safe, competent rendition of a life that deserved more than that.



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