“The Imitation Game” is, on one level, an elegant spy thriller about one of the most important and fascinating episodes in 20th century world history: Will British mathematician Alan Turing and his rag-tag band of math geeks break the German Enigma code and enable the Allies to win World War II?
The Enigma code is fiendishly simple yet seemingly unbreakable. Inside a device that looks like an ordinary typewriter, a series of rotors generates coded messages that allow the Germans to coordinate global attacks against the Allies. The code resets every morning at 6:00 and there are millions of possible combinations that must be reevaluated each day.
The stakes are high and the odds against Turing are even higher. Does he have the intellectual capacity to break the unbreakable code? Can he hold his team together during the grinding daily struggle that begins anew each day at dawn? After years of failure, can he convince his military bosses to continue supporting his work? Is there a Soviet spy on his team and will that spy undermine their work?
Since the outcome of the story is known in advance (Turing breaks the code), it is remarkable that award-winning novelist and novice screenwriter Graham Moore has crafted a nail-biting script that generates considerable suspense about how the code will be broken. It is even more remarkable that his screenplay also becomes an enthralling detective story about the enigmatic personality of Turing himself.
“The Imitation Game” actually explores three different periods in Turing’s amazing life. The movie starts in 1952 when Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) reports a break-in at his home. Detective Robert Nook (Rory Kinnear) initially suspects that Turing is a Soviet spy, but soon discovers an even darker secret: Turing is gay at a time when homosexual behavior is still against the law. While Nook is sympathetic to Turing, the scientist is convicted of acts of “gross indecency” and is forced to undergo chemical castration. In 1954, Nook returns to Turing’s house to investigate the professor’s death, an apparent suicide.
The movie also goes back to 1927 when Turing is enrolled in the exclusive Sherborne School. Turing’s friend Christopher introduces him to the science of cryptography and the two use increasingly complex ciphers to express their deepening feelings for each other.
Moore’s screenplay deftly weaves these three time frames together to create a complex portrait of the conflicted scientist and his turbulent times. Moving between these three periods gives the film a powerful story arc that allows Moore and director Morton Tyldum to explore the deep personal and social themes of Turing’s ultimately tragic tale.
Director Tyldum brings a sure hand to his first English language feature film. He moves smoothly and cleanly between the three time periods and brings the grueling physical and intellectual work of breaking the code to vivid cinematic life.
Cumberbatch turns in an amazing performance as Turing. The British actor has become known for playing characters that combine intellectual engagement with emotional detachment and his fascinating portrayal of Turing is a proud addition to that gallery. Cumberbatch captures Turing’s razor-sharp intellect with equal measures of passion and precision, yet he also brings Turing’s wicked sense of humor to the forefront. Sometimes the laugh is on him (Turing takes everything literally) and sometimes the laugh is on others (Turing’s bemused observations about social norms that he neither understands nor appreciates). This unexpected laughter leavens the story and rounds out the movie’s depiction of Turing.
Keira Knightley is excellent as Joan Clarke, the only woman on the Enigma team (and the only person who can beat Turing’s times at solving puzzles). Knightley and Cumberbatch bring great compassion to the complex relationship between Clarke and Turing. The two briefly become engaged (in part to give Clarke greater freedom of movement around the base) but Turing breaks off the relationship (in part because he feels compelled to tell Clarke about his homosexuality). They make an intriguing couple.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong. Allen Leech (who played gay in the indie film “Cowboys and Angels” but is best known for his role as Branson in “Downtown Abbey”) gives a layered performance as the Scottish scientist John Cairncross. Cairncross is unfazed by his discovery of Turing’s homosexuality, but uses that knowledge to hide his own dark secret. Matthew Goode shines as the slick Hugh Alexander who begins as Turing’s chief rival but becomes one of his staunchest defenders. Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”) is wonderfully blustery as Commander Denniston, the nominal military overseer of the project and Mark Strong is delightfully oily as Stewart Menzies, the wily intelligence operative who really runs the game.
Some critics and activists have criticized the film’s rather chaste portrayal of Turing, but this movie already has enough on its plate. “The Imitation Game” does not fully explore Turing’s conception or expression of his sexuality or the political and social conditions in post-war England that led to his cruel punishment. But it is a fine film that does present a captivating portrait of a complex genius, the gay man who helped win World War II and who was persecuted for his homosexuality after the war. “The Imitation Game” is not the last word on Alan Turing, but it is a powerful and moving film that illuminates the fascinating life and career of this LGBT hero.
“The Imitation Game” opens Dec. 12 at the Landmark Cinemas and Dec. 19 at AFI Silver.