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The Imitation Game Movie Review

The Imitation Game: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art
The Imitation Game is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

The Imitation Game (2014) movie poster The Imitation Game

Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014 / Running Time: 114 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Morten Tyldum / Writers: Graham Moore (screenplay), Andrew Hodges (book Alan Turing: The Enigma)

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Alan Turing), Keira Knightley (Joan Clarke), Matthew Goode (Hugh Alexander), Rory Kinnear (Detective Robert Nock), Allen Leech (John Cairncross), Matthew Beard (Peter Hilton), Charles Dance (Commander Denniston), Mark Strong (Stewart Menzies)

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Though it isn't to the extreme of Deep Impact and Armageddon or Antz and A Bug's Life, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game do have enough similarities and proximity to demand comparison.
Both films are PG-13 biopics about British geniuses who faced adversity in the middle of the 20th century. Both hail from relatively unknown European directors and arthouse studios versed in prestige. Both have been expected to compete for major awards from about the moment they were announced. And, despite some reviews that border on lukewarm, both are in serious contention in a year where none of the usual stout-hearted dramas released at the end of the year seems capable of overcoming Boyhood, the little summer critical darling twelve years in the making, for the top honors.

Imitation arrived a mere three weeks after Everything's limited opening, which could easily have worked against it. But, despite its title, Imitation is obviously no copycat. It's the better and more interesting of the two that are being rolled out slowly to build word of mouth.

The name Alan Turing isn't as recognizable as Stephen Hawking, but perhaps it should be. This film will certainly help, as it celebrates the brilliant British mathematician as one of the biggest unsung heroes of World War II. Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is established in the opening scene, a job interview for a top-secret government position, as a socially awkward man. The learned 27-year-old doesn't recognize a joke when he hears it, much less tell any. He is frank, direct, and though modest about his own intellect, not reluctant to doubt someone else's.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to decrypt the Nazi's Enigma machine in "The Imitation Game."

Turing is hired to decrypt Nazi Germany's Enigma machine for enciphering and deciphering sensitive, confidential messages. The electro-mechanical device may look simple, even primitive compared to today's technologies. But unlocking its secrets is a massive undertaking, one that would take brilliant minds millions of years of experimenting. Turing devotes himself to the project, hoping to unshroud the Nazi communications that are responsible for loss of Allied life every few minutes. Unliked by his peers, including his immediate supervisor (Matthew Goode), Turing doesn't have any apparent personal life or family, freeing him to work, work, work and crack the code. A letter to Winston Churchill increases his authority to fire those not pulling their weight and to stand up to those questioning him. Turing also gets approval for a 100,000 pound expense to build a machine that tries every possible one of the millions of combinations efficiently each and every day.

This world of brainy British men could really use an intelligent woman. Fortunately, that is just what we get in Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), apparently the only female to respond to a challenging newspaper crossword puzzle used as a recruitment tool. Joan is referred to the receptionist area, as all are shocked that a woman -- a woman! -- could complete a tough crossword quickly. Turing comes to respect Joan as much as any of his colleagues and even proposes to her when her parents' concern over her unmarried status threatens to pull her off the Enigma project.

Alan and Joan are not actually in love in any way. He is secretly homosexual, anyway. In mid-20th Century Britain, that is a crime and one for which Turing is interrogated in a chronology-bending current that runs through the film. Being gay at a time when that is illegal is Alan Turing's motor neuron disease. It doesn't debilitate him, but it does add stress. Turing is depicted as a theoretical homosexual. He is accused of soliciting the company of a male prostitute, but we don't see this or any other display of romance or longing. There doesn't seem to be any room for emotion in Turing's scarce, mechanical personality. He is every bit as rigid and precise as "Christopher", the giant, gear-grinding machine that is constantly trying to crack Enigma's secrets.

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) wows everyone with her ability to quickly complete challenging crossword puzzles. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is proud and protective of the code-cracking machine he's named Christopher.

The Imitation Game doesn't concern itself with making sure we understand what Turing is doing. A few figures convey the enormously long odds the project is up against. But, how is it then that if the codes reset daily that Alan's team needs just one big break to crack it indefinitely? Maybe I missed it, but you'd think that information would be worth relaying clearly.
For a film that keeps its subplots secondary and fleeting, Imitation gets us involved in the Enigma deciphering without getting us to invest in specifics or intricacies. That's okay, though, because you assume that such a film has to simplify the technical side of Turing's work in order to fit the mold of a crowd-pleasing historical triumph, one The Weinstein Company memorably used four years ago on The King's Speech.

This film doesn't succeed to the extent that comparable Best Picture winner did, but it is similarly accessible, involving, and fast-moving. Though Turing is humorless, his film absolutely is not. It avoids the melodrama and dryness that British period dramas typically choose between. Cumberbatch made one of each of those in 2011 between War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Renowned for his work as television's Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch has seemed primed to make the leap to movie stardom for several years now. Blockbuster villainy in Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hobbit sequel voiceover didn't really do it. Nor, despite much advance hype, did The Fifth Estate, a 2013 movie expected to be for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks what The Social Network was to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The blue-tinted Euro thriller struck out with critics and bombed with moviegoers, but Cumberbatch had four other Oscar-nominated films to fall back on that year, including a forgettable brief appearance in Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. The Imitation Game may not be anything exceptional, but it is a legitimate Oscar contender and the first "Benedict Cumberbatch movie" to be described as such. Cumberbatch sinks his teeth into this juicy, unusual characterization, convincing you with his stammering confidence.

It helps that the movie has notorious Oscar maestro Harvey Weinstein in its corner. Hardly a year goes by without at least one Weinstein-backed film in the Best Picture race and most acting categories of the Oscars. Though just one of eight films The Weinstein Company is actively campaigning for Academy recognition (a count that excludes the highly acclaimed Radius-TWC-branded Snowpiercer), Imitation is Harvey's ticket to this year's action.

Last year, Weinstein had a bunch of films on the bubble and Philomena got in. The year before, two Weinstein movies (Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained) vied for top honors, while a third (The Master) featured in three of the four acting categories. Thanks to Musical or Comedy designation, Weinstein earned multiple Golden Globe nominations, as expected, for Big Eyes and St. Vincent. And Citizenfour has its sights set on Best Documentary. But 2014 is the year of The Imitation Game for Weinstein and this is almost certain to be the studio's only film to land a Best Picture Oscar nomination and two acting ones. Weinstein has pulled off upsets before: see Shakespeare in Love shocking Saving Private Ryan or The King's Speech topping The Social Network after the contrary outcomes once seemed like foregone conclusion. We'll see if this film has what it takes to pull off such a win, but a handful of fruitless nominations seems the safer bet with the tide currently flowing in favor of Boyhood and Birdman.

Anyway, if you see just one British biopic in theaters this holiday season, I would recommend it be The Imitation Game.

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Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Theory of Everything Into the Woods Big Eyes Inherent Vice Birdman
Golden Globe Nominees: Boyhood The Grand Budapest Hotel Gone Girl St. Vincent
Benedict Cumberbatch: The Fifth Estate August: Osage County Star Trek Into Darkness
Keira Knightley: Begin Again Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Last Night Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

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Reviewed December 25, 2014.

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