I remember seeing the 1978 biopic The Buddy Holly Story on TV in my early teens. I wasn’t a big fan of Buddy Holly, but was aware of who he was, what he did, and how his life was cut short. I hadn’t seen a great deal of biopics at the time, and for whatever reason, fully expected The Buddy Holly Story to end with him dying in a plane crash, as he had in real life.
It doesn’t, instead ending on a triumphant note as Holly plays (what would become) his final concert, with a text card informing us that he dies later that night. I thought a lot about that ending at the time. I’d expected the film to be a tragedy, but it really tried to be a positive one. I still can’t decide if it was a good decision or not to remove his death from the main narrative, but at least in that case, his death was the result of a tragic accident.
I can’t recall which film ignited it, but I had another thought recently about biopics – how many actually do portray the deaths of their subjects? Off the top of my head I could think of 3; Malcolm X, Gandhi, and Lincoln. Now what do these three men have in common? They were all assassinated as a result of their actions. That’s a detail vital to include in telling a story of their lives, and these films all knew it. There are plenty of biopics for which it’s fine to just end on a key moment then display a title card about what came later, but there are other subjects for whom their death is a defining part of their story, and must be included.
And that brings us to The Imitation Game, the latest prestige biopic that seems bound for awards glory after building buzz from early festival screenings. Its subject is Alan Turing, I shamefully didn’t learn of his story until my early twenties, and then I was surprised there hadn’t already been a movie made about him. Turing was one of the most important people of the twentieth century, someone who can legitimately claim to have changed the world. Turing led the team that broke the German Enigma code in World War II, a key event in leading to its end. His wartime work saved millions of lives, and his pioneering methods have led to him being called ‘the father of computer science’. There would be no glory for Turing though, sentenced for gross indecency at a time when being gay was illegal; he received hormone therapy to chemically castrate him, which led to his suicide two years later.
The death of Alan Turing is a vital element in the story of his life, a movie about him needs to include it. He may have had a remarkable and positive influence on the world, but his life met a tragic conclusion, and the film should reflect that. It doesn’t. The final scene occurs after Turing’s started receiving the hormones, where he is suffering physically, but it’s centrepiece is a speech one of his former colleagues gives to him about how much better the world is for having him in it. It then cuts to a celebratory flashback of his team burning their classified documents after the war, with text informing the audience of Turing’s eventual fate. It’s a disgraceful attempt to end the film on a positive note and send audiences home with a feeling of uplift rather than the appropriate level of sadness.
The Imitation Game initially looks to be using his trial as a framing device; it begins with him explaining who he is to a police officer who’s interrogating him. He doesn’t provide a running voice-over though as the film initially sets-up, and then alternates between scenes of his interrogation, the main plot of his work during the war, and flashbacks to his difficult childhood at boarding school.
These flashbacks are I imagine where the film uses the most ‘dramatic license’, cooking up a first love story between Alan and another boy that deeply affects him throughout his life. It leads to the one ‘fact’ in the film I just had to look up afterwards (it was false), and frankly, the film could have easily excised all these scenes.
Where the film works though, is as a thriller about breaking the code. From Turing’s entertaining first job interview to his rise through the ranks, the assembly of his team and their eventual breakthrough, it always engages. It takes a few more liberties to crank up the tension but this time to better effect.
It’s also very well performed, Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in the lead, portraying Turing as a man who’s somehow both arrogant yet socially awkward. He manages to sell a few of the scripts more trying notes, such as Turing taking everything too literally (in a manner oddly similar to Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) with ease. He’s backed up a stong supporting cast including Charles Dance, Matthew Goode and Mark Strong. As his right-hand woman, Kiera Knightley does a serviceable job but seems a little miscast. They, along with a one of overworked composer Alexandre Desplat’s better scores, help to elevate the film from Morten Tyldum’s (Headhunters) flat direction.
The film doesn’t try to play-down Turing’s sexuality either, as was initially rumoured. It’s quite clear that he’s gay and his engagement to Knightley’s character is always shown to be born out of mutual convenience more than any budding romantic feelings.
The wartime scenes that make-up the majority of The Imitation Game move along nicely enough for the film to function reasonably efficiently for most of its running time as a spy drama. It seeks to be more than that though, attempting to posit Turing himself as a ‘mystery to be solved’ like his work, and in this aspect is far less successful. It’s good that it draws more attention to Alan Turing, but it’s decision to brush over the hardship that led to his untimely, awful demise in order to end on a happier note is nigh inexcusable.