Set during World War II, The Imitation Game is a historical drama based on the life of mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing. The Nazi’s created a complex code writing machine called Enigma to send secret encrypted Naval messages. Under orders from Minister Winston Churchill, a secret team of code breakers was assembled and housed at the Government Code & Cypher School at Bletchley Park to break the 3000 codes produced daily by Enigma. Breaking the code meant saving countless lives and shortening the conflict. But even using the sharpest intellectual thinkers in Britain would still take decades of around the clock work to break Enigma’s unique code system. Turing began creating on his own a machine that could think and work out the puzzles produced by Enigma. Turing’s thinking machine was the prototype for the modern computer.
Yet with the importance of this work, why does the film begin so quietly and so… lonesome… with news of a break in at Turing’s residence where apparently nothing was taken? And why is Turing being taken to jail for questioning?
The Imitation Game isn’t just a true life procedural telling a heroic tale nearly lost to history and Turing himself wasn’t just a brilliant mathematician with zero social skills. Turing was also a closeted gay man during a time and place in history that considered homosexuality with fear and culturally accepted cruelty and indifference. Turing’s code-breaking work was being kept top secret by the government, and his own life remained an even deeper secret. In spite of his contribution to the war effort, and being the father of Computer Science, Turing was arrested for acts of indecency which led to an unfathomable outcome.
Turing is the kind of role actors dream about—a real life, emotionally complex genius with poor social skills– and Benedict Cumberbatch culls a career high inhabiting it, powering through the film with near athletic tenacity. Its not a showy role—as Turing himself wasn’t a showy person–but rather focused and concentrated.
Noregian director Morten Tyldum based his film on the book by Andrew Hodges, adapted here for the screen by Graham Moore. It shifts back and forth between Turing’s anti-social work method at Bletchley amongst a team of chess experts and mathematicians, and his time as a youth at Cambridge. The younger Turing, played by Alex Lawther turns in a magnetic performance as equally worthy and committed as Cumberbatch. There’s a moment late in the film where the young Turing receives some unexpected news and director Tyldum wisely lets the camera rest on Lather’s face. We simply watch as a young man listens, yet the scene is one of the most deeply affecting in the film. Lather allows so much to boil beneath the surface of his face. Its an astonishing moment Lather bravely owns.
Keira Knightly keeps the film from being a complete boys club. When Turing sends out a call for help from the public, Knightly’s Joan Clarke proves herself worthy, even as society insists on restricting her and lowering its expectations simply because she’s a woman. Even her family would rather she let go of her intellectual pursuits and just get married. Turing meanwhile doesn’t see societies limitations and assumptions. He sees within her an intellectual brilliance and a lifelong friendship. Knightly here is illuminous and awesome.
Also awesome is Matthew Goode who raises his modestly written role as Hugh Alexander, a member of the code breakers, to a smooth elegance. Its a atmospheric role that could have been swallowed by the rest of the story, but Goode polishes it to a high gloss.
Alan Turing undoubtedly changed the world despite the world’s stubborn insistence on bigotry. Turing himself, as enlivened by Cumberbatch, wasn’t the easiest friend. He comes off humorless, (Turings failed attempt at telling a joke has to be an ironic high water mark for comedy), having mild Asperger’s, arrogant, stubbornly confident and patient. Yet Cumberbatch makes Turing likeable, which in turn makes the films denouement hit hard.
The Imitation Game is a Masterpiece Theater style English drama with a deeply painful core. Its trades in intelligent storytelling and character work without being explicit or obvious. Here’s a film I went into blindly; not knowing anything of Alan Turing or Enigma and having never read the book. It provided an amazing history and a logical reason how and why a computerized brain would be necessary. Many of the film’s surprises and developments were great surprises to me. An even bigger surprise was with Turing coming off so socially awkward, how Cumberbatch makes him deliciously heroic and unique. What Turing did forever changed the war and the world thereafter. The price Turing was forced to pay remains a puzzle of history no number of assembled geniuses may ever solve.