Biopics are a tricky business. In the cynical 2010s, sweeping biopics about historical figures just don't really cut it anymore. There have to be complications and something different than just a series of events in the storytelling. Recently, Lincoln (2012) did it fantastically by focusing deeply on a narrow time frame- what was going on in Congress and within Lincoln's inner circle during the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery.
The Imitation Game uses a similar technique by having flashbacks focus on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) during his arguable peak when he and a team of academics worked on cracking the Nazi Germany ENIGMA codes at Bletchley Park. As a framing device, the film also follows Turing in the present day when he is jailed for having relations with another man. The movie is really at its best when it focuses on the past. I wish the writers had spent as much time developing the bleak, present day when Turing is broken down by society's treatment of homosexuals because that is also a really critical to piece to Turing's tragic legacy.
The Imitation Game is a fine, solid, serviceable movie but could have been a much better film if it hadn't tried to thickly force the main themes. One of the main themes is that even though Turing can't seem to understand other people, that is also what makes him so unique and singularly able to break the code. There are lots of ways the movie conveys this main theme naturally through the plot, but it also, ungracefully, has characters verbally state the theme.
Despite that though, there's a lot that I like about the Imitation Game. It does a fantastic job explaining how the Bletchley Park team of mathematicians and linguists broke ENIGMA. I am sure we got a vastly simplified explanation of how the machine that Turing's team built, but I appreciated how the writers were able to describe how the Turing machine (precursor to modern computing) worked for a general audience.
The performances are fantastic, especially Cumberbatch as Turing and Alex Lawther as young Turing. Both do a really wonderful job of showing what it is like being unable to belong and not understanding people well enough to understand why they don't.
I was also really pleasantly surprised by the prominence of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the female mathematician on Turing's team. While Turing is unable to connect with his teammates, since Clarke is a woman, she is not even allowed to work with the team in the same room. Turing has to sneak Clarke's work to her room during odd hours of the night. I love that Clarke clearly has her own agenda and is never relegated to being defined by her relationship to Turing as female characters unfortunately often are in movies. Clarke and Turing's friendship is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie, especially because both of them want different things from what society expects of them.
One really fantastic scene that has stuck with me was how when Clarke meets the rest of the team, she is pleasant and the team immediately likes her. Turing, confused, wants to know how Clarke gets them to like her so easily. In reply, Clarke states, "Unlike you, I don't have the luxury of being difficult." Especially in light of all these studies showing how women do face biases in the workplace, I wish more movies and TV shows told these stories about women not just in period pieces but in modern day pieces. I do find it strange how some of the best fictional portrayals of women fighting social limitations all take place in period pieces (such as the always fantastic Mad Men).
Overall, The Imitation Game is a decent film. The story telling could be a little less heavy handed but its fantastic performances, explanation of modern computing, and unexpected feminist leanings definitely make it worth watching.