Without fail, there's always one biopic a year that manages to ascend in my esteem beyond a cheap "Oscar bait" write-off. Usually, these are films that surprise me not merely because of the quality of their performances, but because real thought has been put into the crafting of the narrative. If there's one thing year after year of "Oscar movies" can teach us, it's that there's a real difference between great raw material and a great movie. The best "based on true events" films manage to arrange the contents for maximum impact, and whether or not they take liberties, they become ironclad narratives that reveal something about their subject without forgetting to engross and entertain their audience. When films like this really work, they manage to feel somehow light even when their subjects carry significant historical weight, and The Imitation Game does precisely that. Though the film deals with heavy subjects like social injustice, questions of identity, and Nazis, it puts its characters first and lets us engage with the issues through them. While there's a clear reverence for Alan Turing (here played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and a definite interest in drawing attention to his contributions, The Imitation Game concentrates on making him human instead of preaching. What it offers is a real, compassionate portrait of a man who accomplished so much and yet suffered so greatly.
That shouldn't be a spoiler alert, for a figure who accomplished so much, but perhaps it is. In his lifetime, Turing lived with secrets. There was the burden of his sexual identity, yes, the burden of pretending to reach out to other people, the burden of hiding the fact that he'd cracked Enigma, the burden of being responsible - in a way - for who lived and who died. During the war he played along with intelligent men like Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) to keep afloat, and was engaged to co-worker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) just to keep her on the team. After their backstage participation in the war effort, Turing and his teammates in Hut 8 lived as enigmas themselves. What they'd done was so confidential that the records weren't opened until some time after Turing's death in 1954, and the film plays off the notion of so many overlapping secrets and ciphers as a type of theme. Questions of identity, imitation, and information are interwoven so thoroughly within the narrative that even disparate flashbacks fit neatly into the film's continuity.