Benedict Cumberbatch triumphs as the brilliant but troubled mathematician Alan Turing in this classy but conventional, Oscar-baiting biopic.
Chief Film Critic @foundasonfilm
Nothing is too heavily encrypted in “The Imitation Game,” a veddy British biopic of prodigal mathematician and WWII codebreaker Alan Turing, rendered in such unerringly tasteful, “Masterpiece Theatre”-ish fashion that every one of Turing’s professional triumphs and personal tragedies arrives right on schedule and with nary a hair out of place. More than once during the accomplished (but not particularly distinctive) English-language debut for Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), you can catch the ghost of the late Richard Attenborough nodding approvingly over the decorous proceedings. And yet so innately compelling is Turing’s story — to say nothing of Benedict Cumberbatch’s masterful performance — it’s hard not to get caught up in this well-told tale and its skillful manipulations. Likely to prove more popular with general audiences than highbrow critics, this unapologetically old-fashioned prestige picture (the first of the season’s dueling studies of brilliant but tragic English academics, to be followed soon by “The Theory of Everything”) looks and feels like another awards-season thoroughbred for U.S. distrib Harvey Weinstein.
By any measure, “The Imitation Game” is a marked improvement over Michael Apted’s 2001 “Enigma,” a dreary, dramatically inert potboiler starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet as fictionalized versions of Turing and fellow cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, who was also briefly Turing’s fiancee — until he confessed his homosexuality and broke off the engagement. In adapting Andrew Hodges’ Turing biography, “The Enigma,” first-time screenwriter Graham Moore seems to have made a close study of Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network,” which “The Imitation Game” resembles in its flashback structure, many scenes of geeky young men huddled over complex algorithms, and its central conception of Turing as an Aspergian outcast who makes up in haughty, condescending attitude what he lacks in basic social graces. That’s not a bad model to work from, though Moore has also picked up a few less desirable habits from those screenwriting seminars that encourage writers to do things like having multiple characters articulate the theme of the movie in a nifty, self-empowering mantra: “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects,” which becomes “The Imitation Game’s” version of “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Of course, in the England of Turing’s time, with the Victorian-era Labouchere Amendment still in effect, being gay meant having to say you were sorry all the time — provided you were unlucky enough to be caught in the act, as Turing was in 1952, arrested on charges of “gross indecency” stemming from his affair with a 19-year-old male drifter. (Two years later, Turing killed himself at the age of 41.) “The Imitation Game” begins there, using Turing’s interrogation by a sympathetic policeman (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device that offers a practical explanation for the character’s running voiceover narration. We then jump back to 1939 and the early days of England’s entrance into the war, where the 27-year-old Turing applies for a top-secret post working on the decryption of the seemingly “unbreakable” German cipher machine called Enigma, used by the Nazis to encode all military radio transmissions from ordinary weather reports to valuable tactical maneuvers.
Turing lands the gig at Bletchley Park, home to the Government Code and Cypher School, where he plays poorly with others, alienating his fellow codebreakers and clashing repeatedly with his bosses (a wonderfully starchy Charles Dance as a seen-it-all Royal Navy Commander and Mark Strong as a cagey MI6 agent). When Turing chafes at being second banana to the Enigma team’s de facto leader — suave national chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode in a variation on Andrew Garfield’s “Social Network” character) — he appeals his case directly to Winston Churchill, who responds (in the very next scene) by putting Turing in charge. And just about everything in the first half of “The Imitation Game” has a similar, overly tidy feel of real life reduced to anecdotal zingers. When Turing holds a kind of open audition to recruit new team members, you know that Clarke (Keira Knightley), the lone woman in the group, won’t just turn out to be as good as the men, but even better. And when Turing finally has his Enigma-busting eureka moment, it’s due to one of those random happy accidents, like the apocryphal apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head.
Tyldum and Moore may not be the most inspired of craftsmen, but they know how to keep things moving at a brisk pace, and they manage to cram an impressive amount of information and detail into less than two hours of screen time. “The Imitation Game” is especially good at maintaining a constant, queasy sense of the war (seen in snippets of newsreels and a couple of deftly stylized reenactments), the British body count rising ever higher the longer it takes our intrepid pencil pushers to solve their cryptographic puzzle. It’s enervating work, complicated by the Enigma machine’s exponential millions of possible settings, which the Germans change every 24 hours, effectively causing Turing and company to have to start over again from scratch. Or rather, everyone but Turing, who, having resolved that only another machine can possibly solve the Enigma riddle, sets to building a room-sized proto-computer named Christopher (after a schoolboy protector and crush, seen in a further set of flashbacks).
It’s a familiar portrayal of the rogue genius who pushes further into the breach no matter the incomprehension and contempt of his smaller-brained contemporaries, but Cumberbatch invests himself so fully in the role that the scenes transcend their attendant cliches. His Turing is a marvel to watch, comically aloof when confronted with as mundane a task as ordering lunch, but seething with the mad intensity of a zealot whenever anything risks impeding his work, and finally heartbreaking in his inability to cope with the cruel realities of the world outside Bletchley Park.
Ultimately, “The Imitation Game” doesn’t need its banal catchphrases to show us that Turing is a savant who sees and feels the world differently than most other people, because it’s there in every inch of Cumberbatch’s performance — in the rigid way he carries himself (as if he were two sizes too big for his own body), and in his pained realization that he can never fully decipher the code of ordinary human interaction. And Knightley — who’s reliably more interesting as misfits and weirdos (like her Sabina Spielrein in “A Dangerous Method”) than as virtuous ingenues — proves every bit his equal as the brilliant Clarke, another societal square peg blithely unconcerned by the era’s demeaning conception of womanly ability.
Turing breaks Enigma a little over halfway into “The Imitation Game,” and it’s only then that the movie blooms into something darker, more troubled and altogether more interesting. It becomes about how, having made arguably the greatest breakthrough of the war, Turing and company must now keep it hidden, not just from the public, but from most corridors of government and military power, lest anyone inadvertently tip off the Germans that their secret transmissions are no longer secret. So Turing’s team now finds itself charged with determining the maximum amount of intercepted information that can be acted upon without giving the game away — a “blood-soaked calculus,” per Turing, that often means sacrificing some British lives in the name of saving others.
Even then, “The Imitation Game” never quite trumps the sense that Turing’s life was a messier, more complex enterprise than we’re allowed to see here. But the movie is undeniably strong in its sense of a bright light burned out too soon, and the often undignified fate of those who dare to chafe at society’s established norms.
Top-flight craft contributions add to the overall classy feel, particularly the lush, contrasty 35mm lensing of Spanish cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Impossible”), the cluttered desks and primitive computing machines of production designer Maria Djurkovic (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), and a piano-and-strings score by Alexandre Desplat that catches something of Turing’s anxious, uneasy spirit.
'The Imitation Game': Telluride Review
12:53 AM PDT 8/30/2014 by Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
Cumberbatch adds to his laurels in this engrossing real-life WWII code-cracking drama with tragic dimensions
Benedict Cumberbatch is cornering the market on playing exceptionally brilliant problem solvers, first on television with his dazzling portrayal of a modern Sherlock Holmes and now on the big screen in a superb performance as Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma code and helped win World War II.
Engrossing, nicely textured and sadly tragic, The Imitation Game is overly reluctant to dive into the nitty gritty of how the man who’s often called the father of artificial intelligence accomplished what he did, while the matter of his eventual arrest for homosexuality provides a potent and topical framing device. After significant festival exposure, the Weinstein Company has several angles it can play to build this prestige production into a considerable commercial success.
Young screenwriter Graham Moore has cogently streamlined and simplified the story of a man who was recognized very early in life as a rare prodigy and whose rudeness and insulting manner to others is so condescendingly superior as to play as amusing; “That’s actually not an entirely terrible idea” is his notion of the highest form of compliment. An eccentric in a country famous for them, Turing (like Holmes) sees things that others do not, which in wartime is a talent to be prized, even if tolerating the genius on a day-to-day basis is something his colleagues can scarcely endure.
With the blitz battering London and the Nazis taking control of Europe, the British government engages six math and chess whizzes to try to crack the Germans’ code, perceived as unbreakable, by which the enemy’s naval forces receive new instructions on a daily basis. As analyzed by the experts, Enigma has 159 million million million possible configurations, meaning it would take decades to decipher it by conventional methods.
Overseen by old school Commander Denniston (a very good Charles Dance) and led by two-time chess champion Hugh Alexander (a smooth Matthew Goode), the group is hardly welcoming to Turing, who lets the others know in no uncertain terms that he considers them so useless that he’d be better off working on his own. In one fine scene, after an exasperated Denniston fires Turing, the latter trumps him by writing to Winston Churchill directly to win support and further financing.
Although the film is filled with scenes of these bright young men putting their noses to the grindstone in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park (the top secret facility bearing the public name of Bletchley Radio Manufacturing), it’s never made clear how they’re planning to crack the code and what they’re concretely doing to achieve it. No doubt all the arcane details would sail right over the heads of nearly all of us, but some shop talk would have been welcome, as would some clarification of what disagreements are putting the eggheads at loggerheads.
For his part, Turing puts together a large device with dozens of moving discs and nobs, something that’s easily recognizable as an early computer. Although one can deduce that this gizmo is going through innumerable combinations of letters and numbers in the hopes of eventually hitting on what the Nazis use to convey instructions about their next targets, some basic explanations about what Turing has brought to the table would have honored the man’s mind and accomplishments as well as respected the audience’s intelligence and curiosity about what set him so decisively apart.
“He’s different,” remarks one character, stating the obvious, and the difference the film seizes upon is his sexuality. Structured around a 1951 police investigation stemming from a break-in at Turing’s flat that eventually leads to his arrest for “indecency,” the film advances a contemporary “its okay to be different” perspective that will probably make it speak strongly to younger audiences and is very much in line with then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 2009 official public apology for “the appalling way he was treated,” and with Queen Elizabeth’s posthumous pardon issued last year. But it’s also possible that a more true-to-period, reserved approach might have proven an even more moving way to deal with the love that, even then, dared not speak its name.
The arrival of the only woman admitted to the inner circle of code breakers, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), adds further layers of interest, both emotional and sociological. A brilliant puzzle solver, Joan quickly becomes the only person Turing likes to talk to, their confidential relationship eventually leading to his odd and, in the end, insincere and half-hearted proposal of marriage.
At the same time, their professional relationship has to be hidden, as regulations dictate that women are only permitted lower level clerical and communications jobs at the site and are required to live together in communal housing. Knightley’s turn here is alive, alert and altogether sympathetic.
After two years go by without concrete results, the pressure for some breakthrough becomes extreme. But when it does come (anachronistically accompanied by the entirely modern “Yes!” exclamation on the part of one character), it’s a success leavened by the insistence of MI6 head Stewart Menzies (an authoritative and reserved Mark Strong) that the solving of the code must remain a tightly guarded secret; if the Allies tip their hand by thwarting too many German attacks, the enemy will certainly cease using it. So the artificial brain puts its creators in the position of playing God, deciding who will live and who will die.
All along, there is suspicion that Turing might be a Soviet spy, an idea that drives the post-war investigation of Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) once the war hero has been arrested for his “degenerate” conduct. In the event, the leaks to the Russians come from elsewhere, but this is of no help to Turing, whose fate is deplorably tragic.
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, whose lively and provocative 2012 feature Headhunters is the most successful Norwegian production on home turf of all time, moves things along nicely and achieves some rich visual texture, but doesn’t seem all that interested in the finer points of period flavor, especially in regard to personal behavior; if you watch English films about WWII made either during or after the war, the sense of tightly coiled courage, behavioral reserve and resilience under pressure is unmistakable. There’s little of that here, as the characters are allowed a far greater and, one might argue, more modern range of emotional expression, which could be all to the good in terms of audience acceptance.
But dominating it all is Cumberbatch, whose charisma, tellingly modulated and naturalistic array of eccentricities, Sherlockian talent at indicating a mind never at rest and knack for simultaneously portraying physical oddness and attractiveness combine to create an entirely credible portrait of genius at work. In addition to everything else, Alan Turing was a highly accomplished long-distance runner and occasional glimpses of the man putting his all into the sport lend physical punctuation to a largely indoor story.
The subject of numerous books, Turing was the central character in Hugh Whitemore’s successful play Breaking the Code, which opened in London in 1986 and moved to Broadway the following year. With Derek Jacobi again playing the leading role, it was made into a BBC television production in 1996.