The Imitation Game
For a film focusing on a code as complex as the WWII German Enigma machine and a personality as impenetrable as genius cryptographer Alan Turing’s, The Imitation Game feels regrettably straightforward. Directed by Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) from a screenplay by Graham Moore, this British biopic recounts the true story of the man credited with shortening the war against Nazi Germany by nearly two years and saving millions of lives with his unprecedented advancements in computer theory. Shockingly, Turing was not recognized for his heroism until the 1990’s, and finally received a posthumous royal pardon for the “gross indecency” charge that ruined his life from the Queen of England in 2013. With its flashback narrative structure, socially inept protagonist, and immaculate historical polish, The Imitation Game falls somewhere between a Peter Weir (Gallipoli) period drama and David Fincher’s The Social Network.
The movie opens with the prodigal mathematician Turing (brilliantly portrayed by Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch) asking the audience if they’re paying attention. Cumberbatch’s voice certainly demands attention, and his performance as the tragically misunderstood genius keeps some of the film’s more melodramatic moments from feeling stale or cliché.
Turing is joined at Fletchley Park by a team of fellow codebreakers led by two-time national chess champion Hugh Alexander (Mathew Goode), and a staunchly disapproving Commander Denniston (Charles Dance channels some Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones for this role). Turing quickly dismisses his team as incompetent and goes over the head of his boss by writing directly to Winston Churchill, who places Turing in charge of the top-secret project. Deciphering Enigma presents a particularly difficult challenge because its encryption code resets every 24 hours, making the team’s everyday efforts an impossible race against the clock. This provides a good opportunity for some tension filled scenes as the team struggles with their lack of progress and the rising British body count, shown in clips of newsreels and a few stylized reenactments. Turing resolves that only another machine can solve the Enigma quandary, and sets out to build a computer prototype that he names Christopher after his boyhood crush and classmate.
The group eventually begins to hit its stride once Turing secretly recruits the charming Cambridge undergrad Joan Clarke (Keira Knightely), the sole female member of the six-person team. Clarke’s role as Turing’s supportive colleague and momentary wife helps to soften Turing’s harsh, angular personality and nearly inhuman lack of empathy. Yet it also threatens to overshadow Turing’s homosexual romances, expressed through another series of flashbacks featuring a young Turing (played wonderfully by Alex Lawther) and his schoolyard protector Christopher Morcom. The tragic conclusion of The Imitation Game might have elicited a more compelling emotional response if it had spent more time building this childhood relationship. Fortunately, Clarke’s personal struggle and eventual triumph as a female genius in a sexist military organization also works as a captivating counterpart to Turing’s societal ostracism.
Turing and his colleagues crack the Enigma code about halfway into The Imitation Game, and are immediately faced with the devastating moral conundrum of deciding whom to save with their newfound knowledge. The team uses what Turing describes as “blood soaked calculus” to alert allied forces to as many dangers as possible without tipping off the Germans that their communication system has been hacked. Yet again the most tragic portions of Turing’s life are minimized, reduced to a few bittersweet concluding scenes and a title card to reveal his final fate.
At least you won’t be left trying to decipher the theme of the film. Tyldum takes care to remind us that the most brilliant minds are often the most troubled ones, and at least three characters state encouragingly, “sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects.” While The Imitation Game shamelessly wears its heart on its sleeve, the film does present a remarkable biopic of a tortured genius that sacrificed everything to change the course of history.