You know that computer or laptop or tablet or smartphone you’re reading this on? You owe at least some debt to Alan Turing for having that device. This is one of the small facts that turns up at the end of The Imitation Game, the Oscar-bait biopic about Turing that focuses on his efforts — heroic for sure — to crack the Nazis’ supposedly unbreakable Enigma code during World War II. But while that part of Turing’s story is a worthy one, it’s also the safest aspect of his life and thus the easiest to make into a movie that is geared almost shamelessly toward capturing the minds, hearts and, of course, votes of Academy members come award season.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. Well, okay, there is, kind of, only because it misses the real story of Turing’s life: how the achievements and brilliance of this man were more or less cast aside when he was revealed as being a homosexual — which was illegal in Great Britain at the time — and how that revelation arguably led to his ruination, decline, and death. These aren’t spoilers but facts — and they’re facts that are shoved onto the screen in text form just before the credits of the movie roll, a sort of “by the way” that lets you know about the incredibly compelling movie you might have seen.
Instead we get this still interesting but mostly predictable tale of a socially awkward and aloof genius (Benedict Cumberbatch in a more naive variation on his Sherlock work) who joins England’s codebreaking team at Bletchley Park during the war and pretty much ignores what everyone else is doing so he can focus on building the machine — the “Turing machine,” a.k.a. the prototype for the modern computer — that he insists with manic confidence will solve Enigma and win the war for the Allies. There is the commanding officer/antagonist (Charles Dance) who wants to shut Turing down at every turn, the disbelieving rival (Matthew Goode) who eventually becomes an ally, and the single female member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who becomes Turing’ closest friend and to whom he proposes marriage — and who in one of the film’s better moments is absolutely fine with his later admittance that he is gay.
All the cast members are quite good, especially Knightley, but this is Cumberbatch’s show — and his Turing is at times brilliant, cruel, funny, compassionate, obsessive, and just plain odd. In other words, it’s a showcase performance for award consideration that, on its own terms, is quite strong even if we’ve seen the British actor do this kind of semi-imperious stance before. But the film presents him as the strange icon around which everything else revolves, never really giving us a glimpse inside the man — except in a series of poignant flashbacks to Turing’s middle school years when his friendship with another young student becomes imbued with a tension that neither boy anticipated or can articulate.
These flashbacks are powerful and the actors in them (including Alex Lawther as the young Turing) are very good, but they’re also nestled inside a confusing screenplay structure that meanders back to Turing’s school days, flips forward to the Bletchley Park years, then forward again to Turing being interrogated by a detective (Rory Kinnear) who thinks he’s stumbled onto a Russian spy. In the end, screenwriter Graham Hodges and director Morten Tyldum settle on the story thread that’s the most conventional in biopic terms. Tyldum, whose Headhunters displayed a nastier, darker streak, keeps it all relatively safe here as the film trundles toward its climactic moment of triumph (again, this isn’t a spoiler — we know which side won World War II). The movie is cut from more or less the same standard biopic template we’ve seen countless times before, with one or two mournful notes at the end so that you’re not exactly whistling on your way out.
It’s hard in some ways to criticize The Imitation Game too harshly; it’s well-made, nicely shot and handsomely mounted on the production, set, and costume fronts. It’s entertaining and interesting, especially if you go into it knowing nothing at all about Turing or the British efforts to break those German codes and the stakes involved. But it’s all so stately and proper, and there’s so much more of the story that is not told that The Imitation Game (which refers to a test Turing came up with to determine the sophistication of artificial intelligence) lives up to its title, giving us a facsimile of Turing’s story but never delving too deeply to find the real man.
The Imitation Game is out in theaters Friday (November 28).