Published Mar 31, 2015Part of the struggle in making a film about an unconventional outsider is trying to communicate a feeling of alienation and isolation to an audience that is presumably composed primarily of conventional, well-adjusted people. The instinct is often to victimize or idealize the subject, thus making them identifiable through pity, or to gloss over their less admirable idiosyncrasies to construct a narrative template that reassures the audience by suggesting that beneath it all, we're all the same.
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the subject of The Imitation Game and inventor of the "Turing Machine," ostensibly a model of an early general-purpose computer, was not a conventional man. As depicted within this mostly standard prestige biography, he struggled socially, being ridiculed and beaten by classmates for abnormal behaviour and a presumably effete disposition. He presented as a genius, unable to identify with his peers and the survivalist acclimation techniques they utilized in order to fit in with each other, exerting his efforts instead on logic and intellectual progress.
Director Morten Tyldum, whose filmography consists of dramas about damaged, alienated men and the hyper-kinetic, wildly entertaining Headhunters, takes a sly approach to the material. Initially, the biography presents as a standard underdog tale, with Turing being thrust into Bletchley Park to help break German codes during WWII despite not speaking German and having an awkward disposition. His utilitarian tendencies — tendencies that lead him to usurp the authority of his Commander (Charles Dance) and casually fire colleagues that he feels are ineffective — are mostly played for comedy, but beneath this are voiceovers and flashbacks that suggest a deeper pain and a slightly more complex thematic tapestry than the Edward Scissorhands template implies.
Amidst the central plot, which finds Turing toiling desperately to build a machine that would break German codes with the aid of female pioneer Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), flirtatious playboy Hugh (Matthew Goode) and the affable John (Allen Leech), there are repeating motifs — primarily, that of the role violence plays in Western society. The backdrop of the story is WWII, and Turing's voiceover, which is often used to transition the narrative from present to past to future, tells the audience to pay close attention; at least twice, Turing points out that people like violence because it feels good. It's important to note that Turing never inflicts violence, but is victimized by it at several intervals throughout his life, chiefly when people feel threatened or frustrated by his difference.
Though the central story, while quite effective and ultimately devastating, is quite standard and occasionally a little too convenient, it's also smart enough to service the needs of different audience types. On the surface, it's adhering to cinematic standards and assuaging the fact that Turing was a pretty unlikable dick (at least as seen through the eyes of social etiquette). It also avoids some unpleasantries, acknowledging that a burglary was involved in the discovery of Turing's homosexuality while leaving out the 19-year-old boy that was involved in the controversy. But despite these concessions and the many tactics used to humanize Turing, there is also care taken here to show how cold he could be, as he throws one of his only allies under the bus when backed into a corner and flirts with the idea of leading Joan into a marriage of passionless convenience.
It also doesn't hurt that the acting is consistently top-notch across the board and that the score, while standard, has the emotional nuance necessary to reinforce overriding themes of social hypocrisy. These thoughtful, humanizing performances and the background technical achievements aid in giving power to the overriding notion that the world is perpetually prone to dreading and attacking difference, even though that difference might very well be their saviour.
The Blu-ray features don't delve into this subject very far. The commentary is mostly technical and the "making of" is a series of sound bytes about how influential Turing was on the modern day computer. There are also deleted scenes and some Q&A segments that revisit the "making of."