Watching Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game diligently earning a probable Oscar nomination for his performance as the tormented genius mathematician Alan Turing whose work helping to break the German’s supposedly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II and not being as impressed or moved I’d expected to be going in, I got to thinking about the best thing about Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.
Martin Freeman’s Doctor Watson.
Freeman anchors and counterbalances Cumberbatch and Cumberbatch’s Holmes is created in and by that counterbalancing act. Cumberbatch can reach for the high notes because Freeman is right there, playing steadily in the lower keys, bass to Cumberbatch’s tenor sax. Cumberbatch can be grandly expressive because Freeman is deadpan. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a Byronic hero, a raw ego insisting on mattering to itself despite the indifference of God and nature; Cumberbatch can be that romantic, because Freeman is equally realistic. Holmes is never a monster because Watson is on hand as proof of his humanity; Cumberbatch can risk making him monstrous because Freeman is always all too human. And, in an ironic reversal, Cumberbatch can make Holmes a comic character because Freeman makes Watson a potentially tragic one. The first person Holmes saves is Watson. Watson needs Holmes just as Holmes needs Watson, and Freeman needs Cumberbatch to complete his performance just as Cumberbatch needs Freeman to complete his, which means that wherever Cumberbatch might be tempted to take things, he can’t go there unless Freeman goes with him, and Freeman is very good at not letting Cumberbatch drag him in directions he doesn’t want to go.
Freeman’s Watson is ultimately a critical presence (Note to the writers of Elementary: that’s critical, not criticizing. Your Watson is a scold.) and his, that is Freeman’s, job is to make Cumberbatch justify his acting choices. Cumberbatch can’t do anything without Freeman’s approval and support. In Freeman, Cumberbatch has an onscreen equal he has to interact with so that he can’t go Cumberbatching off on his own.
In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch does a lot of solo Cumberbatching.
He has no Freeman to hold him back.
His Turing has no Watson.
Turing has no one who can talk to him on his level, no one who can make him talk on a human level.
Cumberbatch has no one acting on his level, no one who can make him seem like he’s playing a real human being interacting with other human beings.
Instead, he has Keira Knightley’s smile.
I love Keira Knightley’s smile. But it’s been put to much better purpose than cuing us to adore Cumberbatch’s Cumberbatching.
Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a mathematician and cryptanalyst on Turing’s team of codebreakers who was Turing’s close friend and was briefly engaged to marry him despite his being gay. In the movie, Clarke is a victim of the times’ sexism and homophobia and she winds up manipulated and deceived. Although Clarke earned a double first in mathematics at Cambridge University, women were not allowed full degrees and so she was denied the academic career open to men like Turing and her first assignment when she arrives at Bletchley Park, the Los Alamos of Great Britain’s codebreaking operations, is to a clerical unit. Even this typically women’s work is more than her conservative parents think a proper lady should be doing and they’re putting pressure on her to give up all ambitions for any sort of a career at all, quit, get married, and start a family. Meanwhile, according to the movie, Turing, who has discerned Clarke’s talents and surreptitiously put Clarke to work for him is simultaneously desperate to keep his homosexuality hidden and keep Clarke on his team of codebreakers. He proposes marriage as a way of solving his problems first, then hers. She has her doubts but, she puts them aside and accepts because it’s the best path open to her. But this doesn’t mean she had to be a passive character, and she’s not, exactly, but she could have been made more active than the movie lets her be. And the thing, this isn’t historically accurate.
In reality, Clarke seems to have been well aware of what she was getting herself into romantically and sexually when she and Turing got engaged and she didn’t need to marry him to keep her job. Bletchley Park was a surprisingly egalitarian operation for the time. Women were routinely given the same jobs and responsibilities as men (They were not, however, paid the same.) and many, including Clarke, held positions of authority over men. Clarke was initially assigned to a clerical unit, but that was a bureaucratic formality and she was quickly transferred to Turing’s team of codebreakers, not because Turing recognized her brilliance and sneaked her onto the team but because their superiors did and promoted her. And they didn’t do it so she could be an assistant to Turing. She had a specific and very difficult codebreaking task of her own to work on. But going by what we see in The Imitation Game, Clarke’s main job was to be there for Turing when he needed to bounce ideas off her and to check his math and her main role in the movie is to love and appreciate Turing on our behalf.
And he needs loving.
He needs appreciating.
In ways the real Alan Turing didn’t.
As the movie has it, Turing was a solitary genius working in near anonymity before the war. The naval officer who hires him, Commander Alistair Denniston, has barely heard of him while the other codebreakers on the team he’s assigned to, although dimly aware of who and what he is, aren’t impressed. In reality Dennison recruited him and in the circle of mathematicians and cryptography experts British intelligence drew from Turing was a star. But in true movie underdog fashion, Turing has to prove himself to his arrogant, dismissive, and in their fashion bullying team of intellectual inferiors with only Joan there rooting him on, because she knows.
She also knows that he’s not really the socially inept, interpersonally challenged, emotionally clueless, arrogant in his own right, routinely rude and insulting, apparently humorless and totally self-absorbed weirdo he appears to be. She intuits, as smart and beautiful and good-hearted women always do in the movies, that he’s a lonely and wounded soul with charms and heroic qualities he keeps hidden to protect himself from further hurt and it only needs a sympathetic feminine touch to bring them out.
This doesn’t jibe with what I’ve read. Turing could be difficult. He could be arrogant, brusque, and self-absorbed. But he could also be charming, outgoing, and, well, human. And he wasn’t a lonely and isolated genius. He’d had teachers who recognized his abilities and championed him. He had friends and colleagues who were glad for his company and collaboration. He was gay in a time when being gay wasn’t just unacceptable, it was criminal, and that limited his romantic possibilities, but he had a loving extended family.
And Bletchley Park was practically a small town unto itself. Hundreds of brilliant and talented people worked there during the course of the war. Turing was a star among them but one of many. If you only had the movie to judge by, you’d think that beside Turing and Clarke only four other codebreakers worked there and they did nothing but wait around wearing out pencils in futility and grumbling in frustration until Turing had his eureka moment.
I’m not a stickler when it comes to historical in “historical” movies. I understand that poetic license allows for changes, compressions, and omissions when needed to tell a compelling and coherent visual story. As long as the story is true to life, it doesn’t have to be true. But I don’t like it when the monkeying around with facts isn’t necessary to telling a good and true to life story. I especially don’t like it when sticking to the facts would have made a better, truer to life story and a better movie.
I don’t know why director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore didn’t include Turing’s fellow geniuses---one of them, Hugh Alexander, is a character but not as a genius on Turing’s level. He’s there as an initial rival and doubter and his role is to come around and then subordinate himself to Turing---or why they didn’t give Clarke her due. I suspect that they worried that it would distract from the story they wanted to tell, which wasn’t the story of Turing’s contributions to winning the war but the story of his arrest after the war for “gross indecency.”
That is for the crime of being actively homosexual.
They’re not interested in Turing as a gay war hero as much as they are in Turing as a gay martyr and they don’t seem to have trusted that their audience would admire him, care about him, and root for him sufficiently and feel enough outrage on his behalf if we weren’t led to think he’d won the war singlehandedly and weren’t made to feel sorry for him.
But leaving aside the playing around with history, this narrative focus sentimentalizes Turing and robs him of his autonomy as a gay man and as an adult regardless of sexual orientation. In The Imitation Game, Turing’s erotic and romantic feelings are active only in his past. The reason he seems so absent in the movie’s present is that his heart and soul are always traveling back to his boyhood (where he’s played by eighteen year old Alex Lawther doing a spookily exact imitation of Cumberbatch’s Turing as a young teenager). Essentially, he’s never grown up. He’s an emotionally arrested boy in a man’s and woman’s world. He’s not just imitating a straight man, he’s imitating a grownup.
Not only does this diminish Turing as a character and actual historical personage, I think Tyldum and Moore have done a disservice to Cumberbatch by leaving him to carry the movie pretty much all on his own. If they weren’t going to use Clarke as Turing’s Watson and let Knightley act as Cumberbatch’s Freeman, they had plenty of other candidates to choose from among the other real stars and geniuses at Blectchley. For that matter, there didn’t need to be only one Watson/Freeman. The Imitation Game is almost a one-man show, a tour de force for Cumberbatch (or Turing de force), but it could have been and I think should have been a real ensemble piece.
We’re given a taste of what that might have been like in Cumberbatch’s too few scenes with Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Charles Dance as Commander Denniston, and Mark Strong as the sinister spymaster Stewart Menzies.
Goode delivers a relaxedly charismatic performance, doing the same sort of anti-Cumberbatching Freeman does on Sherlock, but, as I said, his role is to suddenly recognize Turing’s genius and modestly turn himself into a sidekick. As Watson, Freeman isn’t Holmes’ sidekick. He’s Sherlock’s other leading man.
Dance is terrific in his and Cumberbatch’s first scene together in which Denniston does his best to prod and manipulate Turing into acting like a semi-normal human being who’s aware there’s a war on. And Strong, giving a clinic in hamming it up while seeming to underplay every line. does the seemingly impossible: he makes Cumberbatch stay still and watch someone else Cumberbatch.
But then, for different reasons, both get cut off from meaningful interaction with Cumberbatch well before the end of the of the movie.
Menzies, whose character is shoehorned into the story, gets carried away, and Strong along with him, by a subplot with no basis in history that bizarrely forces Turing into a different sort of closet, that of an accidental traitor. And Denniston has a complete personality change. In between one scene and the next, he goes from a highly experienced cryptanalyst in his own right and canny leader of a team of eccentric civilians to an unimaginative and clueless bureaucrat who just doesn’t understand, a movie cliché of blundering military authority who must be defied.
Knightley gives a thoughtful and heartfelt performance and, of course, she smiles beautifully, but finally she’s just the love interest and in that role she’s rivaled by the proto-computer Turing designs and builds to help with the codebreaking---which, by the way, in real life Turing neither designed nor built, although he did improve it---and names after his boyhood love. Ultimately, she and the rest of the cast step back to watch Cumberbatch strut his stuff. He has plenty of company to play to, but little to play off of.
What it comes down to is this: How much you’ll enjoy The Imitation Game depends on how much you’ll enjoy watching Cumberbatch Cumberbatching for two hours.
The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum, screenplay by Graham Moore, “inspired by” the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, and Alex Lawther. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
On Holmes and Watson and Cumberbatch and Freeman: Sherlock Holmes doesn’t need a second brain.