In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a secretive, repressed, and recessive character transparent and emotionally accessible on various levels simultaneously. He also makes a socially inept and unlikeable character charming without watering down his worst qualities. It’s a truly great performance: a tour de force. I don’t think the film itself is good, but it works, and is very moving, particularly at the end, where one feels the whole audience collectively well up.
Some aspects of the film are unsatisfying. I understand how the three-act structure, which enables the film to focus on Bletchley Park and the various obstacles to breaking the enigma code, whilst simultaneously going back to his past to explain his character (how he is OCD, how he was capable of great love, how that love was lost and how he learned to be secretive) and to the future (to explain the causes and context of his arrest, his sentence and his suicide) is an attractive proposition to a screenwriter: it does make the story flow; it enables the narrative to travel through time whilst retaining the film’s focus — the Bletchley Park section — as a seeming constant present. However, it also makes the film seem too pat. People are messier than machines, there is no one ‘key’ to people’s character.
The best illustration of the film’s worst flaw is perhaps the character of Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley. Knightley is a bit strained in the final sequence and not photographed to advantage there but she is lively, charming and natural in most of the film, and she is not the problem; indeed, few could have done as well with the role. The problem is that the role as written and filmed is not a person but a function. She’s there to demonstrate sexism in British society through custom and convention (her parents initially won’t allow her to work at Bletchley because it wouldn’t be ‘decorous’ and then they call her home because she’s twenty-five and single) and structure (she’s not initially allowed to sit for the recruiting test because she’s a woman).
Clarke is made to be almost as intelligent as Turing but better socialized; the function of the character is also to act in relation to and in contrast with Turing. Thus, although the film is at pains to depict the sexism Clarke suffers from, by the end she finds love and gets a husband whilst continuing with her career, her definition of having it all, whilst he who has helped save 14 million lives is arrested, castrated and driven to suicide for being homosexual. Clarke is an argument on oppression and a figure through which to convey its various hierarchies in the middle of the last century. She’s not a person. That she vaguely comes across as one is due to what Knightley as star and actor brings to the role: an elegant, glamorous, vivacity shot through with intelligence that somehow seems not too far removed from what might be deemed real but much more glamorous..
The film does offer many pleasures: an excellent Charles Dance as commanding obstruction to Turing’s project; Mark Strong brings a twinge of the nocturnal — heartlessness with a potential for cruelty — and considerable strength to his role — he makes the character of Stewart Menzies seems an embodiment of state-sanctioned deception; connoisseurs might also appreciate the sight of Steve Waddington, previously Jarman’s Edward II, the king who sacrificed his throne for the man he loved, here cast as the gruff Manchester copper who seals Turing’s doom. Aside from the performances, there’s nothing exceptional about the film but it’s adequately directed; it looks good and moves well. However, the greatest achievement of The Imitation Game is that it succeeds in making audiences cry for Turing, and by implication for all those treated equally unjustly half a century ago.
It’s not too long ago that I felt contemporary cinema had giving up on making audiences cry, thus abdicating one of the greatest functions of cinema and denying audiences one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, this is precisely what some of the most memorable and important films of the year have succeeded in doing: 12 Years a Slave and Interstellar are but two and divergent types of ‘weepies’. Moreover, seeing The Imitation Game made me realise that British Cinema has been markedly successful in eliciting tears: Philomena, Pride and now The Imitation Game, three of the biggest hits of the year, have all aimed for tears (as well as laughter) and audiences have responded as if those tears were on tap and ready to flow subject to a tactful prompt.
At heart these recent British films make us cry because they’re melodramas that dramatise the gap between individual desires and proscribed ways of being, that looks at the past and measures the gap between what was and what is just. They structure their stories around differentials in knowledge not just between characters in the story, such as the difference between what the headmaster knows about Turing and his friend Christopher and what we know, but also differences in knowledge between what the characters think and accept of certain issues such as homosexuality and what we, the audience, think and accept now. These films are important not only because they make us cry or because they make us cry about these characters but because they also make us cry at injustice.
Although Philomena, Pride and The Imitation Game, put homosexual identity at desire at the core of the narrative, they’re not gay films per se, they’re not predominantly addressed to a gay audience. They draw on a wide and accessible frame of reference that most anyone can understand. They’re part of the stories a culture tells itself about what it was, what it is, what it should be. And in telling these stories in these ways, in making ‘us’ cry about the injustices ‘we’ did to ‘them’, they re-insert gay men and women into the national narrative, they mark a move from ‘them’ to ‘us’. Homosexuality is thus re-imagined, inserted and made central to a cultural and national identity, shifted from a type of otherness and through tears re-inscribed into a national ‘we’. It is not anything I could once have imagined in my lifetime and quite something to experience.