Imitations of Life

Imitations of Life

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing as a creature of secrets in The Imitation Game.


Crossword puzzles and cryptograms are tight-knit forms, designed to have only one solution. Movies, by contrast, can have wiggle room in their meanings and are more interesting to watch if they do. So what happens if you set out to make a movie about a great cryptanalyst? You might find yourself working at cross-purposes, as Morten Tyldum sometimes does in The Imitation Game, a pretty good movie based on a portion of the life of Alan Turing.

I say a portion because Turing, during his all-too-brief forty-one years, achieved more than any randomly selected 10 million people would likely pack into their collective life spans. It was certainly more than will fit into a single film. Working with screenwriter Graham Moore (who has relied on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography), Tyldum necessarily omits large chunks of the career, from Turing’s stints in the United States before and during World War II (episodes that might have situated him among other researchers in a wider world) to his successful forays into fields beyond computer science, such as mathematical biology. For purposes of narrative concision and thematic focus, much of the life, too, is cut away. Tyldum merely alludes in passing—cryptically, I might say—to Turing’s career as a long-distance runner, who competed credibly for a spot on England’s 1948 Olympic marathon team. Occasional images of Benedict Cumberbatch huffing around a track are inserted without explanation, leaving you to understand nothing about this behavior except the pain and desperation creasing the actor’s sliver-of-sky eyes.

Why should Cumberbatch seem to be fleeing something nameless and terrible, rather than running toward the prospect of a gold medal? Because in composing The Imitation Game, Tyldum uses the tight-knit method, presenting Turing only as a creature of secrets. Some (notably the German military’s Enigma code) he cracks to historic effect, while others—principally his love for men—he conceals for dear life.

Tyldum handles the latter aspect of the story so decorously that you might almost imagine Turing never had sex at all. Apart from one catastrophic encounter with a hustler, which happens off-screen, his relationships with men are limited in the movie to a sweet but chaste schoolboy friendship. And yet, locking in the theme of a clandestine life, Tyldum makes a frame story out of the police investigation of Turing’s homosexuality, his prosecution on charges of gross indecency and his untimely death (by suicide, according to the official report, though doubts have been raised). Reproducing what has become the conventional narrative about Turing, The Imitation Game retrospectively imposes a tragic meaning on all the events you see in flashback.

Let me say at once that it would be difficult to think of anything so stupid as the British government’s punishing Alan Turing for acting on his sexual desires, unless it would be the royal pardon extended to him posthumously in 2013 for having done nothing wrong in the first place. Of course The Imitation Game has to address this horror. The problem is that Tyldum does so in a way that almost contradicts the point his screenplay has been laboring to make.

Three times in the course of the film, characters say, in praise of those who are seen as abnormal, “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” If the characters had been poets rather than mathematicians, maybe this would have come out better. Still, you get the idea. The Imitation Game hammers home the moral that Turing’s homosexuality cannot be separated from everything else that made him exceptional. But by turning him into a case study in persecution—one among tens of thousands of victims cited in a closing title—the film pushes Turing into a crowd, at the risk of reducing this dazzlingly multifarious figure to a single thing: a martyr to homophobia.

Fortunately, though, The Imitation Game is not a single thing, despite Tyldum’s efforts to make it so. The movie keeps getting away from him, in a good way. Sometimes an old-fashioned, low-budget visual effect, almost nostalgic in tone, lightens the mood, however inappropriately. Tyldum dramatizes the devastation of war through a charmingly obvious model shot (you’re one level away from seeing a toy boat sunk in a bathtub) and visualizes the race against Nazi victory by superimposing the whirring rotors of Turing’s decryption machine over stock footage of marching jackboots. Such moments return you to the movie culture of the 1940s, tacitly acknowledging your distance from the events of the period while reminding you, as well as could be done through up-to-date illusionism, of the urgency of the struggle. I’m glad to say Tyldum is even willing to deploy a little 1940s slapstick. When Turing wants to conduct a covert, late-night conference with a colleague, he tumbles headlong through a second-story window to the accompaniment of jokey music on the soundtrack. You’d almost think Eddie Bracken was sneaking in to see Betty Hutton.

Instead, it’s Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, giving performances that overflow the film’s constraints of theme and structure. In the role of Joan Clarke—one of the very few female cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, and for a brief time Turing’s fiancée—Knightley is really required only to embody a victim of another sort: the hyperintelligent woman pushed aside by a society that will not recognize, let alone value, her abilities. To the degree that the script allows Knightley something more than pure victimhood, it’s through her development of a conspiracy of genius with Turing: she trades her guidance on how to get along with others (just a little) for his professional companionship and protection. But what a wonderful surplus of darting glances and cocky smiles Knightley throws in for free—along with displays of false ingenuousness and defiant pokes of her chin, stiffenings against opposition (her neck, spine and shoulders turned into a single block of ice) and meltings at favorable moments into a light-footed grace. Even when the conception of the movie begins to seem lifeless, Knightley bursts with a vitality that won’t be contained.

The same is true, to an even greater degree, of Cumberbatch—which is remarkable, given that the film insists on Turing’s having been such a guarded and self-controlled man. “Aha, Asperger syndrome,” you’re meant to think, a little anachronistically, when Turing first shows up at Bletchley Park, speaking with the superb literal-mindedness that Cumberbatch has previously used on television as Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes to comic effect and sometimes eliciting a pang of pathos, Cumberbatch’s Turing pretends to be oblivious to the feelings of everyone around him, meanwhile flashing hints to the audience that emotions are covertly churning beneath his surface. That The Imitation Game will eventually take you behind the blank face, showing you that Turing is not indifferent at all, is of course a part of the overly mechanistic scheme of the movie. It was not a foregone conclusion, though, that Cumberbatch would convey so much in the complex and exciting central sequence, in which Turing and his teammates get a sudden insight into Enigma, rush off to break the code and then, after a long moment of exhilaration, fall into queasy sobriety, having realized that to maintain the tremendous advantage they’ve just won, they must permit a certain number of successful German attacks to continue. In the midst of it all, when Turing is too overcome to maintain his mask, Cumberbatch comes close to weeping with wonder and relief. Tyldum keeps the moment brief enough so that it doesn’t become corny—and Cumberbatch plays it with such deep conviction that you don’t think about his performance, or even Turing, but about the uncanny paths that people follow as they make history.

Two of the less consequential of those paths have resulted in The Imitation Game’s being released in close proximity to The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s biopic of Stephen Hawking. Neither film is a masterpiece. But Tyldum’s movie, to its credit, is about people with complicated, sometimes unattractive emotions, who pursue intellectual work that sometimes involves rivalries, ambitions and moral qualms in a world that is more strange than inspiring. If you have time this season to watch only one movie about a tormented British scientific genius—and trust me, you do—then you know which to pick.

* * *

The Andantino movement of the posthumous Piano Sonata in A major is achingly beautiful even by Franz Schubert’s standards—sweetly sad and deceptively simple in its opening statement, then chiming with echoes like unbearable memories—and so ought to be off-limits to any sensible filmmaker looking for soundtrack music. No movie could live up to the piece. Nuri Bilge Ceylan surely knows that; but never lacking for nerve, he has infiltrated the Andantino anyway throughout Winter Sleep and gets away with it—which tells you more about this gorgeous, bitter, sometimes funny, ultimately heartbreaking film than you’ll learn from mere credentials, such as the Palme d’Or it won at the most recent Cannes festival.

For one thing, the choice of Schubert tips you off that Ceylan is in no hurry. He is willing to let the characters and their situation reveal themselves to you in good time, bringing one layer after another to the surface at the daily pace of domestic affairs anywhere, and with the brooding, repetitive attention that’s especially common in provincial life. You will recognize the atmosphere from Chekhov’s stories, which the director and Ebru Ceylan (his wife and co-screenwriter) have adapted for the movie, transposing them to the cold, uneventful setting of present-day Cappadocia. It’s a region of mist, valleys and steep mountain paths, increasingly popular with foreign tourists but deeply pitted with rural poverty, where the houses are built into cones of volcanic rock that sprout everywhere like gigantic stone mushrooms.

This is where Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a gray, preening, thick-bearded stage actor, has retired after a less than glorious career. He lives off the properties he inherited from his father, runs a picturesquely folkloric hotel that caters to tourists, and steeps himself in aggravation with the women in his life: his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), a dependent, middle-aged divorcée whose presence in the hotel none too secretly generates resentment (for which she returns a full measure, and then some), and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who is much younger than Aydin, very beautiful and might as well have left for Istanbul years ago, for all the love she shares with her husband.

The locale is grand—more expansive and otherworldly than anything you’ll see in Interstellar—but the tensions that run through it seem at first to be no more than petty, laughable quarrels. Necla takes pleasure in puncturing her brother’s pretensions of being a journalist and author. (Like many grand men of the provinces, he leaves his affairs to the management of flunkies, the better to uphold the standards of culture.) Nihal performs her duties entertaining her husband’s friends (she’s as good an actor as he ever was), seethes quietly at his self-flattery, and takes her mind off herself by organizing local charity work. As for Aydin, he finds it easy to mock and belittle the two women. He’s busy researching his great history of Turkish theater (which he’s going to start writing any day now) and chatting enviously with the hotel guests, who are free to go elsewhere.

Nothing very serious seems capable of intruding into this life, until a rock is tossed into it. The culprit is a schoolboy: the son of one of the poor tenants whom Aydin prefers to ignore and the nephew of Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), the town’s threadbare, unctuously servile imam. Once the rock is thrown—an act of childish vandalism, undertaken in response to an eviction proceeding that Aydin does not want to know about—more than just a window cracks, for all of these characters.

Critics, myself included, sometimes make the error of mystifying visual style, talking vaguely about this director’s construction of cinematic space or that one’s dramatically meaningful edits. Ceylan is so visually overwhelming—please, if you see Winter Sleep, do whatever you can to watch it on a real screen, in CinemaScope—that it’s hard not to fall into such double-talk. Perhaps I can say that Winter Sleep has interior views (of Aydin’s library, for example) that are so rich in detail that your eye lingers happily no matter how long the shot is held, and exterior views that unfold like a Chinese scroll, and watchful close-ups that allow you to think you’ve understood the character’s feelings, until something crumples behind the face or a hand suddenly intrudes to deliver a slap.

The style of Winter Sleep is big and versatile enough to handle everything from a drunken, bathetic bachelor dinner to the capture of a wild horse beside a river. But the image that most haunts me is neither a close-up nor a long shot, neither an interior nor an exterior, but a combination of them all: a view of Nihal’s devastated face, seen behind a second-floor window from the courtyard below. It’s almost the end of the movie, when she’s nearby but silent and unreachable, and the landscape, reflected in the glass, is inescapably present but immaterial. The last notes of the Schubert are dying away on the soundtrack, and Winter Sleep is closing with them, in perfect harmony.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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