The Imitation Game – Day Five at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine…

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Benedict Cumberbatch‘s name included in the lists of Oscar finalists in the Male Lead Actor category. Yes, he’s that good as Alan Turing in the film The Imitation Game which screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Monday afternoon. For the record, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, and Keira Knightley also turned in riveting performances that may garner Oscar’s attention as well.

The Imitation Games is the story of a scientific breakthrough that may have saved millions of lives, and per historians – shortened World War II by as many as two years. Turing can be called the grandfather of computers as it was his work, with a forerunner of the computer that broke the code of the German’s encryption machine known as Enigma. The British had been intercepting Germany’s coded messages soon after the war broke out but a simple translation from German into English was of no value.

The Enigma machine was reset every day – so any work by the folks attempting to break the code, on any particular day, had to be completely scrapped if the code had not been broken that same day. Calculations determined that the machine created  as many variables as the number 159 million, million, million which is actually the number 159 followed by 18 zeros. A needle in a hay stack was a walk in the park when compared to the task. of breaking the Enigma coding.

Turing was an odd fellow by any stretch of the imagination. He lacked social graces, and was extremely focused. He really didn’t know how to get on with people, and what’s more he didn’t even try. On his initial interview with a Royal Navy Flag Officer – one Commander Denniston, played marvelously by Charles Dance, who continued in the grand and so very British manner of his famous predecessors like Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, James Robertson Justice, and C. Aubrey Smith – Turing almost lost the job before he had it.

Charles Dance as Commander Denniston

Charles Dance as Commander Denniston

But somehow , he did get to sign on and began work in Bletchley Park, the badly named yet important location of the British government’s College of Codes and Cyphers. There, a team was assembled which included 5 men and one woman – Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) to get to work on breaking the Enigma codes.

Clarke had answered an advert which basically opened with – Can You Solve this Crossword Puzzle in Six Minutes or Less. But she almost didn’t get the job – just because she was a woman . But she had more skills than any other of the applicants – so an exception was made. But despite the brilliance of the team – no progress was made. Commander Denniston was at a point of firing Turing because he and his project were so very costly, and b) because in six months they had produced, in what could be described with a single zero – results.

The film uses a framing device of a break-in at Turing’s apartment circa 1953. Apparently nothing was taken, and just as apparent, was the fact that Turing didn’t want the police sniffing around. After all, he had worked on a top-secret project. The Project was so secret that at one point a British spy, Stewart Menzies, played by Mark Strong, was brought on board to help keep the project, and it’s financing, secret and away from the inquiring minds of the British Parliament.

In a funny moment, when Menzies is introduced to the team, as Mr. Menzies from MI-6, one of Turing’s guys began laughing out loud.

Denniston – Excuse me sir, but why are you laughing? Sir, every one who knows anything about the government knows there’s no such thing as MI-6. Menzies: (coughing) – Yes, well, moving on…

That got a very good laugh out loud reaction from the packed theater.

Not so popular at school?

i Menzies (Mark Strong) speaking to Turing:  Popular at school, were you?

So the enterprising detective, deemed it his duty, to get to the bottom of why Mr. Turing made it clear that he didn’t want the police investigating. So that launched the framing device of some flashbacks, and we learn about Turing all the way back to his days as a school boy in one of the country’s more expensive schools. What we might call a private prep school here in the states. In fact, the school was a public school by name but you only went there if you could afford the fees.

Yes, Turing had a grand education, but he never did learn how to get along. In fact his team at Bletchley threatened to quit if it wasn’t made clear to Turing that he had better learn to understand that they were all part of team, and Turing could not, and should not expect to work as a soloist, as it were.

Matthew Goode

Matthew Goode

Factor in a great looking film with proper period clothing, cars, and attitudes for the British War years, and you’ve got a terrific setting. But you still need more than just the look and feel. Here you’ve these (in my view) likely award-winning performance. Directed by Morten Tyldum working from a script by Graham Moore, The Imitation Game looks as if its release date, November 21st, has been specifically planned by The Weinstein Company, following a lengthy series of film festivals showings, to set the film up for an Oscar run.

Okay, the key question that remains is why should you see this film – a period film about odd scientists enclosed in a story, that at its heart,  has all the elements of a mystery, with spies, warfare, and can easily be called thrilling. Said another way:

The Imitation Game is based on the real life story of legendary crypto-analyst Alan Turing. The movie is about the edge of your seat, nail-biting, heart-stopping race against time by Turing and his brilliant cohorts that made up his team of code-breakers during the darkest days of World War II. Working at Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, there was plenty at stake – winning the war, and keeping everything they were doing secret. Then doing so despite personal issues that would later result in Turing having to serve time in prison.

I’m calling this film a must-see, as well as a contender for multiple Oscars. I was never a big fan of Cumberbatch, having seen him only in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, Star Trek into Darkness, and The Fifth Estate, but now, having seen The Imitation Game, I believe that his career is fast-tracked towards super stardom.

Four point seven out of five. The only reason I didn’t give this film a perfect five point zero is that it is not the least bit innovative or new in style or technique. Having said that, it is more than a bio-pic, it is a supremely well done bio-picture. Don’t miss it.

To get you started – have a look at the trailer:

 

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5 thoughts on “The Imitation Game – Day Five at the Mill Valley Film Festival

  1. I thought The Imitation Game was one of the more compelling films of 2014. Although the flashback narrative structure was forced annd spotty, the movie tells us everything we need to know about Alan Turing, the homosexual protagonist who led the secret British codebreaking effort that defeated Hitler’s war machine, and why Turing’s development of the world’s first digital computer was more important to that victory than all the Allied tanks, ships, airplanes and bombs,

    Unlike American Sniper, The Imitation Game looks at war on many levels and weaves threads, including military intelligence, computer technology, discrimination, espionage, and British politics, into a rich historical tapestry. While the Sniper character killed almost two hundred “bad guys,” Turing’s computer shortened WWII by two years saving an estimated 14 million lives.

    That’s my idea of a good story and a real hero.

    • Excellent comment –

      Yes there is that multi-level , multi-tiered story going on. Besides that all of the support characters in Imitation had some depth to them – whereas in Sniper, besides Chris Kyle and his Missus – can anyone name another character?

      jmm

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