It’s a somewhat by-the-numbers biopic, but the appealingly competent The Imitation Game succeeds through the strength of its lead performance.
Codes are a puzzle. A game. Just like any other game.
For all the stale jokes about the “stiff upper lip” of the English, and how their actors cultivate an air of icy implacability, it must be noted that Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the better on-screen criers. With his long, sallow face and quavery baritone, the man who so often must play the emotionally distant Smartest Man in the Room (including here) nevertheless finds ways to let us into the secret heart of his characters. And in Alan Turing, Cumberbatch has hit the motherlode, adding another exceptional performance to this year of “Great Man” biopics. If Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking is a remarkable physical transformation, and David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King is a soulful force of nature, Cumberbatch is the thinker, in a portrayal as precisely calibrated as one of Turing’s machines.
At the outset of World War II, Nazi Germany is marching to victory after victory. Its communications are shielded behind an unbreakable code known as “Enigma,” a substitution cipher that changes daily. The intrepid cryptographers enlisted to crack this code have only about 18 hours – from the first interception of the day – before the code changes again and all their work goes to waste. Alan Turing, a mathematical prodigy who at 27 is already a professor at King’s College, is one of these men.
But unfortunately for the war effort, and especially for their superior, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, playing Tywin Lannister in a uniform), Turing is a difficult man. He’s a loner, lacking even the most basic social graces; he can be insufferable and rude. He very nearly gets thrown out of his job interview; one of his colleagues chides him by saying he only gets to play “the irascible genius” if he actually is a genius. But Turing, for all his faults, has one revolutionary idea that could (eh, will. It’s not a spoiler to say it will) not only win the Allies the war, but change the course of modern history beyond it.
Today, Turing is nearly just as famous for what happened to him after his greatest achievement as for the achievement itself. The film knows this, and trades on that coiling dread early and often, teasing out the sad fate of the grandfather of the modern computer in a straightforward, guileless way. Turing’s Great Secret – that he is a homosexual, something highly illegal to be at that time – is not meant to be shocking to us. Even the only woman in his life, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), brushes it off, because she’s also the only one on Turing’s inscrutable wavelength and, come on, she’s a smart girl and kind of had a feeling anyway.
Nevertheless, the film (directed by Morten Tyldum, written by Graham Moore) is modernly structured to unfold as a tragedy, frequently cross-cutting between three separate time periods: Turing’s days as an abused schoolboy, nursing a crush on his classmate and only friend, Christopher; the creation of Turing’s code-breaking machine during the War; and several years later, when police investigate a break-in at his home and inadvertently uncover his “gross indecency.” But it’s only the middle strand, with its more classical “unlikely hero” narrative, that truly engages; the rest feels somewhat perfunctory, soft-pedaling the more controversial elements in order to, I can only imagine, still appeal to the traditionalist viewing audience.
It may be a modest, downshifted approach, but it is still hardly subtle. The screenplay is unfortunately littered with bits of unnatural dialogue, especially what is meant to be the the big, inspirational poster line: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” say three different characters throughout the film, and it doesn’t get any less clunky the more its repeated. This is also the kind of film where someone can say to Turing, “Popular at school, were you?” and the film will oblige us by immediately launching into flashback. Even some of the moments that should hit hardest come off as malnourished — not through any fault of Cumberbatch or Knightley, but of a script that tends to accelerate where it should pause, and linger where it should move on.
The story of Turing’s machine is fascinating, and Turing himself even more so. So fully engaged in a cause greater than himself – saving millions of lives – he forms hard-earned connections with his fellow code-breakers, and even with Menzies, the winking liason from MI-6 (it does seem like Mark Strong is the only one having any fun.) But most of all, it’s kindred spirit Joan who brings out Turing’s humanity, and Knightley is excellent in the role — a warm, sympathetic presence. Turing discovers her while recruiting new team members, and must scheme to keep her involved despite the military deeming her unsuitable (because, goodness me, she is a woman); these early scenes at Bletchley Park have a real momentum, so it’s a shame the film keeps neutering it by jumping between time periods.
Yet it would take real effort to screw this story up; when Turing finally has that epiphany we all know is coming, and his machine roars to life, it’s hard not to feel a small thrill. This, and the immediate aftermath, is where the film is at its best, turning a breakthrough victory for its characters into an impossible moral quandary. (Which, I suppose, is Turing’s life in miniature.) And throughout, the film is unquestionably well-crafted, with meticulous attention to period detail, appealing cinematography from Oscar Faura, and a sprightly score from Alexandre Desplat. Cumberbatch, for his part, has never been better than in the film’s heartbreaking coda, bringing great depth and vulnerability to a challenging role. This is a story that needed to be told — and it is ultimately told well, doing honor to a vitally important and unjustly treated man, whose work laid the foundation of technology as we know it today. But why does it feel so safe?