Alan Turing was among the most important British thinkers of the 20th century, yet the story of his life only fully emerged decades after his death. Turing’s work during World War II, where he led a team responsible for cracking Germany’s coded communications, played a huge part in the Allied victory, and his pioneering achievements in computer science are still being felt today.
Beginning in 1941, The Imitation Game introduces the 27-year-old Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose mathematical genius far outstrips his interpersonal skills. Stationed at Bletchley Park in the south of England, Turing leads a team of linguists, problem solvers and mathematicians whose job is to crack the unfeasibly complex communications code used by the Nazis. As conventional attempts to break the code prove fruitless, Turing proposes a radical new approach: construct a code-breaking machine – the most complex of its kind yet conceived – with the power to smash the Enigma code wide open. Turing’s bold plan brings with it a new set of pressures: his colleagues are initially sceptical of his ideas, while the Home Office are more than keen to see a quick return on their then-gigantic £100,000 investment.
Turing can at least count on a couple of allies. Fellow mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) proves to be both a vital collaborator and moral guide when Turing’s lack of social graces let him down (“I’m a woman in a man’s job. I don’t the luxury of being an arse,” she counsels), and even ladies’ man and cryptanalist Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) gradually begins to see the brilliance in Turing’s wild ideas.
Director Morten Tyldum’s last film was the deliriously funny and violent thriller Headhunters, but there’s none of that film’s unpredictable mania to be found here. Based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, The Imitation Game is structured a little like Milos Forman’s glossy biopic Amadeus, skipping between Turing’s middle-age, youth and work in World War II. Graham Moore’s screenplay gradually peels back the layers of its subject’s tragic life through a series of key events: his merciless bullying at boarding school and his unrequited love for a fellow student. The pressures of solving a code while hundreds die every day on the front line during the 40s. The subsequent suspicion surrounding his secretive past in the 1950s, and the efforts of an earnest detective (played by Rory Kinnear) to uncover the truth.
The legion Sherlock fans who’ll no doubt form an orderly queue to watch Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game won’t be disappointed by the actor’s performance here. As enigmatic as the code he’s breaking in the opening third, Cumberbatch brings real pathos to his character later on, pulling back the curtain on a man who, at first, seems as cold-blooded and narcissistic as Holmes, but gradually reveals a vulnerable creature beneath.
A best-of British cast, which includes Mark Strong and Charles Dance, ably backs up the central attraction. The Imitation Game may be set in World War II, but it’s as much about the stifling social mores which governed Britain in the 30s, 40s and 50s as it is about the war effort. In an era when homosexuality was a criminal offence, Turing’s forced to play an Imitation Game of his own: he finds a like mind and soul mate in Joan (Keira Knightley, who’s pluckily effective despite her crisp, bee-bee-see accent). Like Turing, Joan doesn’t quite fit in a job dominated by boisterous, heterosexual men.
It’s a tragic story, for sure, blunted somewhat by The Imitation Game’s soft-focus approach. Cinematographer Oscar Faura lights much of the film with a diffuse golden light, giving it the cosy feel of a Sunday afternoon drama. The dialogue-heavy script, with some occasionally awkward lines (“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue) underlines the sense that we’re not so much watching a drama about a genius betrayed by the British establishment as an episode of British period TV drama Heartbeat, or a knockabout Ealing comedy.
There’s a tendency, too, to use lengthy scenes of talking-head exposition or a bad CG shot of boats and submarines when a single, powerful image will suffice. There’s one very well-handled sequence of Londoners fleeing to the safety of the London Underground to the horrible rhythmic thud of German bombs, for example, which says more about what Turing’s fighting to stop than anything else. Or the simple yet strikingly-lit and composed image, of Turing standing alone before his beloved code-breaking machine, which says so more about the way his thoughts and passions than a long mouthful of dialogue ever could. Had The Imitation Game relied more on cinematic moments such as these, it could have been a much more effective film.
Having typed all this, The Imitation Game turns round and obliterates all the cosy superficiality in the final third. Cumberbatch draws deep and brings forth a truly poignant performance, and Knightley is almost his equal. It has to be said too that Alex Lawther, who plays a young Turing at school, is absolutely astonishing in one lengthy take which focuses purely on his wounded, shimmering eyes. The hurt and pain of the whole film is in those eyes. It’s a superb moment, backed up by Alexandre Desplat’s simple yet memorable score.
The Imitation Game is by no means a perfect movie, but there are isolated moments with genuine power such as these. And if Cumberbatch’s unusual star wattage brings Turing’s story to a wider audience, then that can only be a good thing.
The Imitation Game is out in UK cinemas on the 14th November.
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