Film review: The Imitation Game and Life Itself

David Gritten / 13 November 2014

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as an inscrutable British wartime genius, and Life Itself, a remarkable documentary about American film critic Roger Ebert.

Belatedly, Alan Turing has recently been recognised as an authentic, though shamefully wronged British hero. A pioneer in early computer science, a hugely gifted mathematician, and above all a code-breaker of genius, Turing was dispatched to Bletchley Park during World War II and led the Enigma initiative in deciphering coded messages from Nazi Germany.

To call him a complex man would be to understate wildly. He was far more at ease with the algorithms whizzing around his brain than with personal relationships; he was abrupt, indifferent to the effect of his manner on other people, and hopeless as a team leader. (One imagines that today he might have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.) This code-breaker had a closely-kept secret of his own; since boarding school, he had been aware of his homosexuality, which was then illegal in Britain.

Read more about Alan Turing's life

The Imitation Game is an account of Turing’s heroic work to decipher those encrypted German communications. It’s an absorbing story, greatly reinforced by terrific performances by outstanding British actors. The ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch is Turing, never downplaying the man’s sheer strangeness, and finding in him an unlikely source of heroism.  In a certain light, Cumberbatch himself can appear odd-looking, a fact from which he never shrinks for this film.

His colleagues are also given the benefit of multi-faceted characters by the actors who play them. Keira Knightley shines as the resourceful, brainy Joan Clarke, one of the few women in the code-breaking game, to whom Turing was briefly engaged. Others whose work stands out include Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.

These first-rate actors and the intrigue of the story allow The Imitation Game to squeak by as a highly satisfactory entertainment. I’m not as convinced by the work of  Morten Tyldum, whose direction sometimes feels rather flat; there’s none of the verve of, say, Tinker, Tailor, Spider, Spy, a broadly similar British film. And Graham Moore’s script sometimes falls back on repetitive clichéd phrases.

As for post-war scenes in which a police detective uncovers Turing’s homosexuality, which leads to his arrest, they certainly complete Turing’s story and fuel our sense of outrage on his behalf; rather than face a prison sentence, he accepted a course of oestrogen treatment that amounted to chemical castration, and committed suicide two years later. Still, they feel faintly anti-climactic after the high drama at Bletchley Park.  

Read more about Bletchley Park

For all that, The Imitation Game has a lot going for it; it’s one of Cumberbatch’s finest pieces of work in stellar career, while Knightley, especially in later scenes, with Joan a little older, does more than enough to shame her sniping critics. It’s also worth noting that the film duly honours Turing, in contrast to Enigma (2001), which told the same story but peopled it with fictional characters; Turing was simply written out.

He has since received a posthumous government apology for the appalling way he was treated, and a royal pardon last year. Better late than never? Just about. At least the climate is finally right to embrace his heroism, which will benefit The Imitation Game; now we can wait and watch its actors line up to receive deserved awards.

Life Itself

You might well wonder why you’d want to see a documentary about a film critic, but Life Itself, based on the memoir by the late Roger Ebert, eloquently answers the question: it’s a touching, intriguing account of his life. Ebert’s outspoken honesty, the breadth, wisdom and humanity of his writing, and the courage with which he faced cancer for the last 11 years of his life, are inspirational.

For decades, Ebert was film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, a somewhat brash paper aimed at the city’s working-class readers. Yet Ebert was erudite in his analyses of films, while remaining highly readable; he was the first newspaper critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.  

He and his fellow film critic Gene Siskel – his counterpart on the more upscale Chicago Tribune – achieved fame when their locally produced weekly TV show Sneak Previews went national, under the name At The Movies. The two men, who had a combative relationship, gave each movie they reviewed a simplistic ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’; but what they had to say before those verdicts was witty, belligerent, and compelling TV.

Ebert literally lost his distinctive voice when he was diagnosed with cancer; his lower jaw was removed in 2006, and he ‘spoke’ through a voice synthesiser. Nothing dimmed his spirits, it seemed; he became an ardent blogger, and his perceptions remained as acute as ever. After a chequered personal life, he had also found love in his later years with his wife Chaz.

What comes across most strongly is Ebert’s sheer love of film, and his enthusiasm in conveying that love. He wrote for his readers, never just for other critics, and his knowledge was vast, extending far beyond the boundaries of film. He brought all this learning to bear in his writing, but he wore it lightly, with wit and charm.

The distinguished documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) assembled a host of talking heads to attest to Ebert’s greatness, including leading film-makers (headed by Martin Scorsese, no less) who were hugely encouraged to carry on by his supportive reviews of their work. This is a notable tribute to a world-class critic - and a great newspaperman.

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