Downton Abbey is a hugely successful period British soap opera that is anachronistic, predictable and overwrought. The Imitation Game is Downton Abbey for the movies. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the Sheldon Cooper of World War II; brilliant, odd, effeminate and humor impaired, and he is tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code. He does so, with the help of Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode and an actor from Downton Abbey, all the while struggling with his sexuality, his anti-social personality and a race against the clock.
There is not much in the film that isn’t expected. After alienating his colleagues, Turing wins them over. After being quirky, we are charmed and in his corner. After connecting with a teen friend in boarding school in flashback, the boy dies. After that boy tells Turing, “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” that line is delivered again and then again. After the team cracks the code, they immediately pinpoint the location of every ship in the Atlantic and deduce that a passenger ship is in danger, but they can’t save it, because it would give their achievement away to the Nazis, and then, it turns out the brother of a team member is on the ship in danger, and he tells Turing he can’t be God.
Cumberbatch is good in parts, but it is a mannered, tic-laden performance, one that eschews every one of the relationships he is supposed to develop. You don’t believe he has bonded with his co-workers and you sure don’t believe he and Knightley have established an intellectual kinship. Curiously, Turing’s homosexuality is successfully used against him – when he discovers a Soviet spy in his midst, the spy threatens to reveal Turing’s sexual orientation and Turing clams up. And how did the spy come to learn Turing was gay? When Turing became engaged to Knightley to keep her on the team, after treating his sexuality as a state secret, he rather comfortably tells the spy his personal business.
Another problem is the insistence on establishing a suffering symbol for homosexuality, a dramatic decision that has plagued African American characters in historical films for eons. The real Turing was pretty openly gay with his co-workers, even coming on to several male colleagues. Now that is interesting. But we need a noble victim here so, let’s just forget the stubborn and inconvenient facts. It is one thing to amp up Turing’s role in creating the device that breaks the German code. It’s another to change his very essence to deliver us our important lesson.
But its British, it’s topical, it has sweep and it is a tragedy anchored by Cumberbatch’s Oscar bait tears and quivers. So, it is heralded. But when it is not being ridiculous and ahistorical, it is pedestrian.