Oscars 2015: The Imitation Game … or Sherlock – The War Years

The Film: The Imitation Game

What’s It About? As World War II engulfs Europe, a group of English mathematicians are assembled at Bletchley Park to work in secret on cracking the code of a captured German Enigma encryption machine. With England’s fate hanging in the balance, the group’s leader, the brilliant, eccentric Alan Turing, must hide his homosexuality or risk arrest and persecution by the country he is fighting to save.

Number of Oscar Nominations? 8

Will It Win? Like Robert Duvall, Meryl Streep, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Reese Witherspoon, and Rosamund Pike, Benedict Cumberbatch can sit back and enjoy himself at the Oscars, knowing he won’t have to get up and make a thank you speech. While he does good work in The Imitation Game (very good work, actually), the Academy is going to give Best Actor to either Eddie Redmayne or Michael Keaton. Likewise, Keira Knightley probably won’t win Best Supporting Actress: it’s looking more and more likely that Boyhood‘s Patricia Arquette will win.


The Imitation Game is cursed with the bad luck to be released in the same season as another handsomely-mounted, nice-looking and well-acted film about a brilliant Cambridge man struggling against adversity. Were it not for The Theory of Everything, it’s distinctly possible that the Alan Turing biopic would do well at Awards time. As it is, I think there are only so many striped V-neck jumpers and mugs of grey tea that a moviegoer can take.

Although it has eight nominations, including a couple of biggies, I have a feeling that it might get shut out. It won’t win Best Picture or Best Director (honestly, it doesn’t deserve either: it’s a decent film but it’s hardly subtle). Alexander Desplat’s music is lovely, but he is unfortunately competing against himself (The Grand Budapest Hotel); a split vote is possible, and in any event, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s romantic score for The Theory of Everything is going to win.

The film’s strongest chance is in the writing and editing departments. The story is set in three timelines: Turing’s school days; the work he and his colleagues did at Bletchley Park during the war; and Turing’s last years in Manchester in the early 1950s. It shifts gracefully and quite well between the three periods, and Graham Moore’s screenplay hits all the expected highs and lows of Turing’s life, while dumbing down the mathematics just enough to make the code-breaking understandable to a middlebrow audience.

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There is of course a double meaning in the title The Imitation Game. Just as Alan Turing’s machine imitates the mathematician’s effort to break the Nazi ENIGMA code, Turing does his best to imitate a “normal” person. The film seems to want to go out of its way to tell the audience that he probably had Asperger’s, hence his difficulties at school, his abrasive nature, his inability to pick up on social cues. His homosexuality (then a criminal offence) is covered as well, although it’s far less a focus of the film than in the BBC drama starring Derek Jacobi, Breaking the Code. 

The film’s main focus is on the work at Bletchley Park, and frankly, although there’s a war on it all looks rather nice. Tucked in the countryside, it’s all cobbled village streets, mugs of tea, warm ale and Glenn Miller, with nary an air-raid warden in sight. To remind the audience just how serious the work that went on at Bletchley was, the film often cuts to scenes of U-Boats torpedoing Allied ships, or London suffering the Blitz. And oh, what a Blitz it is! England will stand strong against Mister Hitler, oh yes we will. Children in gas masks. Air raid sirens. Crowds slumbering in the Underground while the bombs rain down. And then the clean-up, duckies. Did I really see a woman holding a cup of tea while sitting atop the rubble of her bombed-out house? Yes, I think I did.

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As Turing, Cumberbatch seems to want to avoid any comparison with Jacobi; his speech is halting and careful rather than the more obvious stammer that Jacobi chose. Cumberbatch also tries to distance himself from his portrayal of Sherlock, although both the Baker Street detective and Turing have a lot in common. Turing is probably less confident around people than Holmes, but both are dismissive of others, have brilliant eureka moments and feel themselves to be surrounded by morons.

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Turing’s biggest ally at Bletchley is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), herself a brilliant mathematician frustrated because as a woman she can only advance so far in any job, and will never be taken seriously (when she arrives for the test to get the job working for Turing it is assumed she’s there to apply to be a secretary). Knightley brings a warmth and lightness of touch to her performance, and she’s quite good, but I was surprised to see it recognised with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

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The film also stars charming cad Matthew Goode (I never noticed how much he looks like a young Rupert Everett); Allen Leetch (barely believable as a Scot, and from the looks of him he’s been raiding the pantry at Downton Abbey); smooth spy Mark Strong; and the Housewives’ Choice for Initimidating Man of a Certain Age, Charles Dance.

Verdict: Three Cyphers out of Five

15 thoughts on “Oscars 2015: The Imitation Game … or Sherlock – The War Years

    1. i think this is a case of knightley just getting lucky and riding a wave of general good feeling about the film, which is a shame for poor old Carrie Coon, who was brilliant in Gone Girl.


      1. There was another one about Enigma, where Turing didn’t get a name check. Cannot recall it, might have been called ‘Enigma’ though! I will give Cumberbatch a go- definitely.
        (I’m getting on a bit Niall…allowances due.)

        Liked by 1 person

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