The Imitation Game Benedict Cumberbatch

“Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one imagines.” This sentiment echoes throughout The Imitation Game. It’s risky, perhaps, to rely so heavily on a line—expressed in nearly identical terms on three different occasions by three different characters—that could sound forced and corny coming from the wrong lips. But it’s a testament to this film’s deep intelligence that these reiterations instead not only pack an emotional punch but also connect three periods of one Englishman’s tragedy-infused and too-brief life: his early boarding-school days in the Twenties, his years working obsessively at the Bletchley Park code-breaking center during World War II—the central focus of the film—and his traumatic later life when his homosexuality is exposed, at a time when it was considered not only scandalous but was also a criminal offense, prior to his suicide in 1954 at age 41.

That man, of course, is Alan Turing. Kept secret for 50 years, the exhilarating details of his team’s accomplishment—cracking the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code used by Nazi Germany—has inspired numerous books and a hit play, Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code, which was adapted into a BBC television drama in 1996 and more recently an opera by the Pet Shop Boys. A previous feature, Michael Apted’s 2001 Enigma, took a fictionalized approach to the events, and in effect left out Turing, the most fascinating element. But the man at the story’s core now gets his long-awaited moment on the screen.

A Cambridge-educated mathematical genius, Turing is a man of many layers; a nut almost as hard to crack as the Enigma code. As portrayed by a mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, he is on the surface extremely off-putting, affected, awkward, humorless, arrogant, and far from a team player, which immediately alienates his co-workers, a small group of problem-solvers who have been recruited to help win the war with their brainpower. But they, and the audience, gradually soften to Turing, with the realization that his grandiose and expensive ambitions to build a machine that can calculate far faster than the human mind within the daily 18-hour window before the Germans reset their code, might just be the key to their success. 

Imitation Game

These kinds of large-scale biographical treatments often seem tailor-made to win awards, but in the hands of Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game actually deserves them. (Alexandre Desplat’s memorable score and Graham Moore’s superb script transcend the formulaic trappings as well.) A director of true versatility, Tyldum followed up his first feature, Buddy (03), a low-budget romantic comedy infused with unexpected emotional depth, with two adaptations of best-selling Norwegian crime novels, Fallen Angels (08) and the slick Headhunters (11). And while The Imitation Game, his English-language debut, is more stylistically restrained than the latter, Tyldum’s handling demonstrates the same smooth assurance and skill with actors—the performances are first-rate across the board.

As the film’s old-fashioned, crackerjack tale of war intrigue unfolds, complete with spies and scenes of battle to express the desperate urgency of the codebreakers’ race against the clock, we are given glimpses into Turing’s personal world—his tragic first love for a classmate, his friendship with fellow crossword-puzzle whiz and great cryptanalytic mind Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, further proving her maturation as an actress), and the shameful persecution of his homosexuality that ultimately brings about the downfall of the complicated scientist, equal parts “monster,” as Joan once calls him, and fragile human being. That those glimpses remain only glimpses may be a source of contention for some (especially those looking for more about his private life). Entire films could surely be made about each of Turing’s many facets, but the one Tyldum has given us—smart, satisfying, and wholly involving—makes for a strong start.