Hollywood is a meat grinder. Actors and actresses enter the fray and they either soar, survive, or get spit out. A countless number of great thespians get their big break only to see it last a mere fifteen minutes, whether it be due to studios’ short attention spans, simple bad luck, bad decision-making, or a combination of all three. Benedict Cumberbatch, it seems, is not one of them. From his recent casting as Marvel’s next tentpole superhero Doctor Strange to his penchant for nabbing awards-buzzy prestige roles, there’s no doubt the man known as Sherlock Holmes, Khan, Julian Assange, Smaug, and now Alan Turing is playing the Hollywood game to a tee. His empathetic performance as the genius mathematician in “The Imitation Game” is just the latest example.
It’s also the latest example of the Weinstein Company’s quest for eternal Oscar supremacy, a successful if not thoroughly deserving one. Newcomer Morten Tyldum’s biopic, about the British pioneering computer scientist and his time working for the MI6, is an easily digestible drama that greatly benefits from Cumberbatch’s sublime talents, as well as those of Keira Knightley, who gives her best performance in years as Turing’s bright assistant Joan Clarke. The script by Graham Moore knows when to spice up the stodgy proceedings with a clever joke or a hefty flashback; a person such as Turing could easily make for a movie that moves like molasses, but director Tyldum and writer Moore have an eye for what makes an audience tick, and they also know when the material speaks for itself. Turing was the inventor of the “Turing machine,” or what we know today as the computer, and watching the progress from pipe dream to potential revolution to possibly a more important weapon than the atomic bomb is a thrilling endeavor. What’s not thrilling is watching Tyldum use montages of World War II bombings and accompanying stock footage to represent the passage of time, without a doubt the cliche of cliches when it comes to films set during that time period, or any “period” time period post-1900 for that matter. Other familiar notes abound, such as the character arc of Turing’s fellow geniuses on the MI6 project, a group of relatively sociable everymen who start out at odds with the irascibly anti-social Turing, but eventually grow to respect and befriend him. The latter isn’t so egregious since such a plot development is never not enjoyable. Overuse of what begins as a truly inspirational line of dialogue (“Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”), particularly in one scene with music swelling at just the right moment, interrupts the otherwise subtle tone of the film with a slab of cheese. Commendably, and what comes closest to an original zest, is the film’s tendency to not shy away from Turing’s homosexuality, and at the same time not make it the only part of his identity. However, ultimately, it’s Cumberbatch who elevates the script and makes it stand out from the thick of awards season. In the early going it seems like we’re going to get a variation of his Sherlock Holmes, but such notions are quickly thrown out as his performance takes on the accouterments of a real person and not a mere superhero.
Well-acted, entertaining, but perhaps agreeable to a fault, Tyldum’s biopic manages to secure itself probable Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay nominations despite the director’s freshman flaws. Ask any person on the street “who invented the computer?” and likely answers include Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, not Alan Turing. This film seeks to change that, among other goals, and does so, successfully highlighting the life of a man who until now has been lost to the biases of history. As for the man known as Sherlock Holmes, Khan, Julian Assange, Smaug, and Alan Turing, blame Cumberbatch’s performative imagination or Hollywood’s lack of it, but the man is here to stay. “The Imitation Game” is a good example of why and how.