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Soundtrack Review: The Imitation Game

January 12, 2015

By Erin Corrado

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Alexandre Desplat’s music for The Imitation Game is a hauntingly beautiful piece of work that helps to elevate the film to one of the best of the year.  Perfectly encapsulating the story and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing, Desplat’s quiet score features simple melodies expanded throughout on a variety of string instruments heightened with smooth piano sections.

I remember at TIFF when I first saw the film, it was the score that was one of the things that really drew me in and captured me.  The music truly put me into the film without feeling overly obtrusive.  Beautifully matched, this is one score I have revisited several times and feel I will continue to.  There is a sense of both hope and sadness to the themes that perfectly match the story.

As the first track for the CD opens, a piano plays broken chords allowing the strings to come in and play a haunting counterpoint.  When the strings finally settle on the main melody and theme for the film, it feels both familiar and new and when watching the film becomes a driving line and thread throughout the story.  This first track is aptly titled “The Imitation Game”.  It features themes from other tracks as well.

The next track is a mysterious sounding minimalist track called “Enigma”.  The title refers to the code machine that Alan Turing and others in the film are attempting to crack by making a machine of their own.  This track at times uses percussion, and pizzicato strings to provide a ‘choppier’ sound in contrast to the main theme, which is quiet fluid.

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Track 3 “Alan” is Alan Turing’s theme.  Like the opening piece, the music for Alan has a very fluid piano and string balance and flow to it, with both instruments answering each other and playing off of each other.

What sets Track 4 “U-Boats” auditorially apart right from the beginning is that its elements and continuous piano plays more in the bass than the previously-favoured treble clef.  Even as the track continues, a middle register is favoured, giving this piece a different flavour, while still a similarity to the tracks before.  The strings provide an appropriate level of tension through the end of the track.

Track 5 “Carrots and Peas” takes place through a flashback in the film.  This is part of Alan’s story as a child, and thus the track uses elements of his theme, albeit with slower strings and the piano keeping to single notes/chords rather than the arpeggios of his adult themes.  The piano also plays a slow version of the theme near the end of the track.  What is interesting about The Imitation Game, is that from a scoring standpoint, even when lead Benedict Cumberbatch is not on screen, his voiceover is often present, so the music must be both subtle and complimentary to it.  I do wonder if this was why many of the tracks play in the higher registers, which provide an easier listening contrast to a lower voice.

Track 6 “Mission” opens up with the film’s main theme in strings, before bringing in the other instruments in counterpoint towards the end of the track.  Track 7 “Crosswords” is a simultaneously light-feeling and persistent track, again using counterpoint to keep almost constant motion and give and take between the instruments.  This is an element that makes this score very recognizable to me – it keeps a continuous and consistent feel throughout that matches the multiple layers to the film.

Track 8 “Night Research” starts off with a continuous note on strings, before a few piano notes come in.  There is a distinct ‘espionage’ feel to this track, very well suited to the time and place.  The notes very much remind me of the ticking away of Alan Turing’s machine, even when it is not present in a particular scene.  Track 9 “Joan” is a slower version of counterpoint, allowing her own sort of expression to blend with the other members of the team.  Towards the end of the track, it picks up with an urgency and percussion.

Track 10 “Alone with Numbers” is again a piano predominant track, as many of Alan’s moments are.  The simplicity of the composition is hauntingly beautiful, and this track like Track 5 initially does not have the faster arpeggios of some of the other tracks for his story.  It is not until the latter half of the track that it morphs into the balance as we know it from other parts of the film.  Strings take over, and the piano defaults back into its arpeggiated sequences.

Track 11 “The Machine Christopher” is when Turing’s machine really takes on a musical identity of its own.  It blends repeated piano sequences with a distinct rhythm and percussion beat, while also mixing in strings towards the end.  For a mesh of very simple themes, a lot is going on here, matching the both simple and complex machine that was an early form of computer.  Appropriately for the score, composer Alexandre Desplat used the aid of three computerized pianos with the Abbey Road Piano Library to mix with the London Symphony Orchestra.  I say appropriate here, as for a film so much about algorithms and computers, the use of them in this mixed way only seems fitting.

Track 12 “Running” is an element of both Alan’s and the film’s main theme.  It is a contemplative piece opening on strings, and has the breathing quality of the music that stuck with me from this film.  The second half of this track has the piano come in to play the melody with the strings.  When I first saw The Imitation Game in theatres, it was these moments of music that I think really drew me in.  They are very well matched to the emotion of the film for me.  The track finishes out with a quiet piano take on the theme with light percussion.

Track 13 “The Headmaster” is another flashback track.  The themes continue to be familiar and evolving.  The piano plays the melody slowly as the strings provide the counterpoint this time.  Track 14 “Decrypting” is another lower register track.  Very espionage-like.  This is a quicker piece than the few previous ones, and builds quite a bit as it goes along, raising in register and key, and adding more elements with every turn.

Track 15 “A Different Equation” provides another breathing moment on the score from the last track, towards the end almost having a dream-like slowness to the string melodies.  Track 16 “Becoming a Spy” like some of the tracks before takes the more ominous and tension-filled lower registered espionage route.  It finishes out on a very slow-paced yet tense note, using repetition to keep us locked in the moment.  There are very clearly two elements at play in this score.  The one tone and feel for the story and the other for the character of Alan Turing.  The first being more measured, while the second having an almost haunting and free melodic quality to it, uncaged, daring to contrast from the time and place.

Track 17 “The Apple” is a very melancholy piece, switching between piano chords of dissonance and falling to regular ones.  The strings come in slowly as the chords continue.  Something about the simplicity as it builds keeps me listening, while I am not always as fond of minimalism.  In the last minute of the track, the strings take on one of the main themes for Alan and in the last 30 seconds seamlessly morphs the theme to piano in a hauntingly slow track.

Track 18 “Farewell to Christopher” plays the simple theme on piano slowly, very much illustrating an element that is familiar to artists.  How important pacing is and how a line of dialogue or phrase of music can take on a different meaning due to nothing more than the rhythm and stresses.  When the strings come in with counterpoint and the piano continues, this simple phrase of music builds with emotion, while never increasing in speed or urgency.  When minimalism works, it works.  And in this film Desplat has made it work exceedingly well.

Track 19 “End of War” starts again with strings moving between slow chords, back and forth, following a sequence that becomes a progressive melody, keeping us engaged until the piano arpeggios come in to join it just before the half-way point.  According to the linear notes in the CD, this score was written in two and a half weeks, and in a way there is a freeness to the composition that reminds me of when you sit at a piano and improvise, letting emotion take you away.  At the end of this track, we morph to the major key briefly, illustrating the moment in the film and history.

Track 20 “Because of You” is a quiet contemplation, mainly by the string section.  It provides the perfect set up to the last track.  Track 21 “Alan Turing’s Legacy” brings us full circle with The Imitation Game theme, starting with strings and moving to the arpeggios that underplay the melodic string theme so well.  Both watching the film for the first time, and after the film in remembrance of the story and characters, this piece so perfectly encapsulates the feel of the whole thing for me.  There is a wonder and mystery to the track, a hopefulness, but also sadness.  Just like the story.  A hallmark of a great score to me is one that wraps itself so intrinsically to the story, and this is one.  The last few moments of the track encapsulate this feeling I mention so well, as the theme morphs into a perfect cadence that feels like it could continue on, but also the perfect place to end.  Very well done.  Brings me right back to the feeling I had in the theatre, and that is something special.

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The soundtrack for The Imitation Game was released November 17th, 2014 by Sony Music Entertainment.  It has 21 tracks and runs for 51 mins., 18 secs.

You can read our full reviews of the film here.

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