Deep Focus: The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is a tremendously engaging work of historical fiction about Alan Turing, the British mathematical genius who was key to cracking the military codes of the Nazis’ “unbreakable” Enigma machine. Unlike self-consciously unconventional biopics, The Imitation Game melds fact and invention with lucidity and sweep. The movie time-jumps among three periods in Turing’s life: his misfit schoolboy days, his top-secret service as a trailblazing code-breaker, and, a half-dozen years after the war, his arrest for “gross indecency” as a gay man because of homophobic laws. In his first English-language film, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (best known for the sardonic thriller Headhunters) forges the three-prong structure as firmly as the tines on a trident. Played as a boy by Alex Lawther and as a man by Benedict Cumberbatch (both are brilliant), Turing becomes heroic because he strives to maintain his integrity in a world eager to exploit his gifts without accepting him. The sections snap together to form a crackling, tragicomic vision of a complex protagonist.
It’s easy to overrate a dreary, expository drama like the best-known telling of Turing’s story, Hugh Whitemore’s play and teleplay Breaking the Code, in which every line is factual and few are captivating. It’s even easier to underestimate the care and intelligence that go into transforming a portrait of an alienated intellectual into a movie as exciting as The Imitation Game. Without making a fuss, director Tyldum and Graham Moore, in his first produced script, introduce and vary their themes in a pop-symphonic way. The scenes set at Sherbourne School in Dorset root Turing’s belief that people like violence “because it feels good” in terrible incidents of hazing, and dramatize the way his outsider status and possible Asperger’s syndrome fuel his fascination with cryptography. Turing’s one pal, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), describes it as the science of “messages that anyone can see, but no one knows what they mean, unless you have the key. ” Turing asks: “How is that different from talking?” (Young Alan goes on to explain: “When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean. They say something else. And you’re supposed to just know what they mean. Only, I never do.”) While foreshadowing Turing’s conquest of Enigma, these scenes movingly suggest that Turing’s one close friendship triggers his interest in human and mechanical brains. In the film’s most emotionally charged conceit, Turing names both his massive code-breaking device and his attempt to create a “universal” machine—or computer—“Christopher.”
As an adult, Turing turns his own personal logic into a complete and sometimes self-destructive modus operandi. At the government’s code-breaking capital, Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, his intense tunnel vision and intellectual super-confidence instantly annoy the military chief, Cdr. Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). He is about to end “the shortest job interview in British military history” when Turing stops him by proclaiming the Enigma codes nothing more than a puzzle he can solve. Turing confounds his more traditional teammates (including Matthew Goode as championship chess player Hugh Alexander) with his disdain for social niceties. Goode puts a snide/suave spin on the unsolicited advice: “You know, to pull off this irascible genius routine, you actually have to be a genius.” But everything about Turing intrigues MI6 chief Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), who pegs the mathematician as a man who can keep secrets.
The military-intelligence scenes derive edgy comedy from the friction between this eccentric Cambridge intellectual and the strictures of life during wartime. Tyldum and company also summon turbulent emotion from the building of an offbeat (if fleeting) esprit de corps among the games-players and numbers men who make up Turing’s final team—including one woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), his peer and confidante and, briefly, his betrothed. The claustrophobia of their confidential mission, the antagonism of their higher-ups, and their irreverence as they strive to unpack all of Enigma’s mysteries bring the pressure-cooker tension and gallows humor of a POW adventure to the code-breaking sequences. Like Turing’s sophisticated machines—including the one that cracks Enigma codes—these scenes accomplish multiple tasks with startling rapidity. Among other things, they compel Turing to devise strategies that sacrifice some lives to save many others. By the end he confronts the violence he knows—a force that makes people feel good—and the violence he doesn’t know: the kind used as political tools by friend and foe alike.
Turing tells Clarke: “It is the very people who no one else imagines anything of who do the things that no one else can imagine.” He coins that aphorism when persuading her to come to Bletchley Park despite her experience with institutional chauvinism. Turing’s offhand wisdom replicates a dominant theme of Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity: that loners and pariahs were most likely to rise up against authority to save society at large. The Imitation Game rouses patriotic fervor in a sly and semi-subversive way. It roots the defeat of global fascism in the war efforts of a handful of crossword enthusiasts hunched over papers and wires. Clarke later repeats the line about “people who no one else imagines anything of” doing “things that no one else can imagine” after Turing has accepted, as punishment for his “crime,” hormone treatments that unman him in more ways than one. Suddenly, words that could have been the tagline for an “inspirational” melodrama take on a terrible irony. The country that benefited from his impossible accomplishment has criminalized him because of his sexual orientation.
In the early-1950s part, the movie concocts an Everyman policeman, Investigating Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), who is put off by Turing’s casual insults and intrigued by the erasure of his war records. He has no idea that he’ll cause a mathematical eminence to be charged with gross indecency: He thinks he’s uncovering a Soviet spy ring. Only midway do we realize that Nock’s interrogation of Turing frames the entire the film. It’s to Nock that Turing articulates his essential plea: “A machine is different from a human being; hence it would think differently. The interesting question is, just because something thinks differently from you, does that mean it’s not thinking?” Turing is not speaking only about machines.
If there’s a prime auteur to this film, I’d say it’s the screenwriter, Moore, who earlier wrote the winning 2008 pastiche novel The Sherlockian, marrying the historical characters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker to his own wild riffs on an actual, contemporary Sherlock Holmes–themed murder case. In The Imitation Game he meshes hard-edged characters, true occurrences, and dramatic fabrications with similar éclat. He even inserts a notorious Soviet spy into Turing’s code-breaking group. It’s a typically bold Moore touch, unexpected but never arbitrary: it trenchantly underlines the risks of ideological wrestling among allies.
Tyldum has visualized the script with density and verve. It’s no small accomplishment to conjure titanic cataclysms in flashes of the same muddy armies and bomb-packed planes that Turing mocks, or to mold Turing and Clarke’s lonely figures so that you can feel the burden of their shared knowledge while they trek to MI6 in London. Tyldum and his cinematographer, Oscar Faura, recall John Boorman’s Hope and Glory as they light and color wartime England to evoke a time of heightened feeling. Most important, Tyldum has handled the cast impeccably—they act with veracity and dash. Dance is nonpareil at being imperious, Strong balances charm with menace, and Goode creates a brainy version of a hail-fellow-well-met as a chess champion and ladies’ man. Even better, Knightley depicts Clarke as a shrewd judge of character and a middle-class woman of the world—for her time. This heroine’s artless intellectual ardor is unlike anything Knightley has done before. In Clarke’s heart-to-hearts with Turing, she merges passion and compassion.
Lawther and Cumberbatch come through with critically acute performances—they fold into each other as seamlessly as Hugh O’Conor and Daniel Day-Lewis did in My Left Foot. Lawther’s Alan is more than a persecuted wonk. His glimmers of mischief and tenderness, along with his mental strength, indicate a complicated sensibility. Cumberbatch brings it to fruition with a portrayal of idiosyncratic genius that bears little resemblance to the actor’s “functioning sociopath” Sherlock or narcissistic Julian Assange.
The linchpin to Cumberbatch’s Turing is his sensitivity. Though ruthless in pursuit of intellectual goals, he registers anxiety—within and without—in the high-pitched register of his voice and the signal flashes of his eyes. Because of Cumberbatch’s élan, Turing’s implacability is magnetic and his mental dexterity thrilling. But that’s not what makes this performance extraordinary. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch conveys Turing’s continuous aching to put thoughts into code and his soul into words. He expresses the inexpressible.