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Terminal Cumberbatch? – The Imitation Game

December 26, 2014


We seem to be reaching Terminal Cumberbatch, a point at which all movies have Benedict C. in them in some capacity, whether as a star, co-star, supporting player or voice. You may recall how in the middle of the last decade we reached Terminal Law, when Jude Law had a stretch where he appeared in every movie in every cineplex across the globe — or at least that was what it felt like. It was the definition of overexposure, and soon Mr. Law fell off the face of the Earth as far as super-stardom goes. Cabbage-Patch Cumberbatch is replicating the same upward trajectory at breakneck speed. He’s been Khan. He’s been Smaug. He’s been Sherlock. He’s soon to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

And his current turn — at least this minute — is as Nazi-code-breaker Alan Turing, an unsung hero of Britain’s WWII efforts tragically done in shortly thereafter by his homosexuality. The Imitation Game has been generating a good deal of positive buzz and expectations, thanks to its multiple narrative prongs: the Second World War, computer/AI pre-history, and LGBT martyrdom. All worthy enough subjects, some more Oscar-baity than others.

It’s a good movie. It’s not great, despite how hard it tries — or because of it.

  1. I’ve seen some commentators puzzling over the appeal of Umberto Cummerbund, and I can’t say that I’m all to sure of what it is that’s made him so much the flavor of the day. He has a magnificent voice and a distinct, slightly odd look about him, to be sure. But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything from him that I’d define as a great performance — an uncertainty that remains after seeing Imitation. Which isn’t to say that he’s not appealing, with tools — that voice and those cheekbones — that are quite valuable in the audio-visual cinema medium. He uses them to their full effect, and others have certainly done less with more. His work as Turing, a socially awkward genius butting heads with military bureaucracy, is commendable. This is a fine ode to those among us who are just plain different. But Cumberbatch more made for elaborate melodrama — which, in good news for Marvel fans, makes him perfect casting to go up against the likes of Baron Mordo and Dormammu. How much fun is it going to be to listen to him cast spells and — dare we dream — reference the “Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth”?
  2. The film shifts time periods to tell its story, spending its bulk on the efforts to crack Enigma, Germany’s unbreakable military code, and framing that with jaunts back to Turing’s miserable days at boarding school and forward to his post-war downfall. The best moments by far are centered on the making of Christopher, the gigantic Rube Goldberg contraption built by Turing and his associates to do the deconstructing labor of literally millions of men. Watching it clunk and whir, its cogs endlessly spinning as it tries to decipher the communiques of Hitler’s gang, is almost hypnotic. That I type this post on one of its distant descendants is a charm not lost.
  3. Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a young woman who answers an ad in the newspaper, joins Turing’s team, becomes as close to him as any other human being, and surpasses his genius in some ways. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it isn’t: she makes a more believable woman of intellect than Jessica Alba as Sue Storm. Though a wet sponge could do the same, so….
  4. One of the principal delights to be had is the rich cross-section of British thespianism on display, appearances by famous and less-famous faces. The guy with the smiley-face glass eye in Last Action Hero. Ozymandias. Sinestro. Tom from Downton Abbey. Eagle eyes might even spot Duncan Heyward from Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. (Perhaps my favorite movie character of all — another story for another time.)
  5. The materials in this story are good. It’s compelling on a number of fronts. But there’s a gloss of clumsy, schmaltzy hokiness that keeps it from elevating. Example: There comes a point when the military commander of the anti-Enigma team has finally had enough of Turing, and comes to can his ass and dismantle the highly expensive Christopher, which hasn’t yet been able to crack a single line of Nazi code. The rest of the team conveniently shows up, does the “you fire him, you fire all of us,” and forces the boss to back down. It’s basically the Jimmy Chitwood town meeting scene in Hoosiers. The difference being that it feels right there, but a tad out of place in this ostensibly more weighty tale. There’s a lot of that heavy-handedness on display. The movie never lets you think and absorb on your own. Lesson: “weighty” doesn’t necessarily require “heavy-handed.”

This is a good movie, certainly far superior to much of the dreck polluting theaters across the globe. The Imitation Game might not meet is larger aspirations — if indeed it even has them — but it’s a tale worth telling, and one worth watching unfold. A fine entry on the road to Terminal Cumberbatch.

Three and a half Enigma machines out of five.

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