After a steadily rising profile in the Norwegian film industry, it's hardly surprising that Morten Tyldum would attempt an English-language crossover. With his 2014 release "The Imitation Game", Tyldum has done just that, taking on one of the more traditional narrative formats - the biopic. As soon as this project was announced, it had been labeled "Oscar bait" and sure enough, 8 Oscar nominations followed. We all know "Oscar bait" can be both good and bad, so what kind is Tyldum's "The Imitation Game"?
"The Imitation Game" is based on the biography of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician/scientist who was a key figure in World War II. Unbeknownst to the public, he lead a secret team of codebreakers that developed a special computer to crack the enigma code, which the Germans used to communicate their war strategies. His computer worked and was instrumental in helping the Allies win the war at a faster pace. Unfortunately, his heroic acts had to be kept a secret and later in a life, another secret came back to haunt him. Despite his valiant efforts, he was criminally prosecuted for gross indecency on account of his homosexual inclinations. As such, the film is a tale of triumph and tragedy.
In telling Turin's story, Tyldum has crafted a stirring film. The detailed production design captures the time period and setting. The costume design is handsome and the cast is excellent. The latter is especially key in the film's crucial moments, where the human emotions speak directly to the film's primary themes (saving human lives and shedding light on injustice). As Joan Clarke - a brilliant codebreaker and Turin's main confidante Joan - Keira Knightley is especially terrific, commanding the screen with her presence. Cumberbatch is also strong as our lead character, though his cocky genius is unlikely to feel fresh to fans of his Sherlock. Other roles are well-cast too, including characters played by the likes of Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.
With a talented ensemble and an inherently fascinating story, it's hard for the film to truly fail and it certainly doesn't. Yet there are deficiencies in the filmmaking that prevent it from being truly inspired. For example, it's disappointing to see how Tyldum handles the thriller aspects of the codebreaking scenes. If you weren't familiar with his previous film "Headhunters", you wouldn't guess that this is the same director who made that clever, uniquely constructed thriller. On this occasion, he seems to have suppressed his special talent in service of something more generic.
There's also the issue of the prosecution subplot, which turns out to be the film's main raison d'être. The screenplay plays it too safe, often a little too coy in dealing with actual sexuality. The eventual trajectory of the story is still heartbreaking (thanks to the moving performances from Knightley and Cumberbatch), but it all seems a bit underdeveloped for something that's presented as the main emotional hook of the story.
"The Imitation Game" is a highly intriguing story that's just a little too conventionally told for its own good. It definitely falls into some of the usual traps (from the moment our protagonist begins to tell his story to an astonished stranger, you know you're in familiar territory). Still, when all things are considered, it remains a very compelling film on its own terms. It may be "Oscar bait", but I enjoyed what it served.
The Academy seems to have enjoyed this Oscar bait too. In fact, this film may be the biggest challenger to "Boyhood" for the Best Picture and Best Director titles. It's also looking very strong in Best Adapted Screenplay, while having an outside chance in its remaining nominated categories - Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best Original Score. Are we due for a shocker on Oscar night? We'll know soon enough.