Secrets are power. Whether it’s an indecipherable code controlling the fate of millions or one man’s closeted sexuality, secrets can topple the mightiest of empires. The Imitation Game follows Alan Turing’s race to break the German Enigma code during World War II, all the while hiding a secret that threatens to destroy him. Bolstered by a commanding performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a propulsive espionage-thriller bookended by well-intentioned, but hopelessly awkward melodrama. It’s a good film that could have been great had it stayed focused on Turing’s obsessive codebreaking.
“We were at war with the clock,” laments a desperate Alan Turing (Cumberbatch). He and his crackerjack crew of code breakers are entrusted by the British Secret Service to decipher Enigma; Germany’s daily telegraph directing troop movements during WWII. A man of limited couth, Turing is more comfortable working alone than collaborating with colleagues of “lesser intellect.” Further alienating him from his superiors (Mark Strong and Charles Dance) and his crew (Matthew Goode and John Cairncross), is Turing’s obsession with creating a “thinking” machine capable of deciphering all German transmissions rather than select communiques. His groundbreaking work not only changes the course of the war, it ultimately builds the foundation for modern computers.
It’s ironic that Turing, a legendary cryptanalyst, was, himself, living a double-life. A deeply-closeted homosexual, Turing went so far as to marry a female member of his crew, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to quell suspicions about his sexuality. Turing’s fascinating quest to build a “universal machine” is periodically interrupted by a secondary plot involving a Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), who’s searching for the truth about Turing’s mysterious military exploits. To call this subplot unnecessary and tedious would be a massive understatement. Eventually, Nock’s investigation leads to a depressing conclusion for this otherwise exhilarating celebration of genius and perseverance.
Director, Morten Tyldum, does a fantastic job transporting us back to worn-torn Europe. Set design, costumes and music all help to establish a time when confederates and enemies were sometimes hard to distinguish. Understanding that his audience knows WWII mostly through textbooks and movies, Yyldum adds some wonderful visual flourishes, including battle scenes that resemble old newsreel footage. It’s a clever device to remind us that this history may have faded, but it was still written in blood.
Benedict Cumberbatch seems to have cornered the acting market for prickly geniuses. Here, he plays a man whose obsession with mathematics and puzzle solving was his only lifeline through a torturous childhood. Told through flashbacks that are craftily woven into the main plotline, we meet a young man mercilessly mocked by classmates. Turing learns that thoughts and emotions are weapons; the only way to escape unscathed is to bury them deep inside. Cumberbatch conveys that burden with each stammer and stumble, with his wounded ego always ready to lash out against the unworthy. It’s a measured and expansive performance from an actor who completely inhabits the character.
Were it not for the clunky incorporation of Turing’s sexuality into the storyline, The Imitation Game might have been a special film. As it stands, however, this complicated subtext is shamefully exploited to forcibly extract a few tears from the audience. Working from the novel by Andrew Hodges, screenwriter, Graham Moore, understands the thematic parallels between Turing’s secrecy and the Enigma code, but he only paints the sexual confusion with the broadest of strokes. In fact, were Turing not cornered into confessing his homosexuality to a blackmailing colleague, we might surmise he was merely asexual, or incapable of making meaningful human connections. It’s as though the filmmakers wanted us to know Turing was gay without actually showing him grappling with his urges. Also sanitized is the complex relationship between Turing and his wife, Joan, who reach a strained understanding that lacks any emotional clarity or import. When the waterworks finally start flowing in the film’s third act, it feels largely tacked on, as if concerned studio executives demanded that filmmakers “add some heart!”
Despite the unsuccessful attempts to meld Turing’s personal life into an espionage thriller, The Imitation Game is a compelling story for most of its running time. With every twist and turn, breakthrough and setback, the tension becomes almost unbearable. And then, when success seems imminent, Turing and his colleagues are faced with an unimaginable moral dilemma that forces them to play god. It’s heady stuff and Cumberbatch is the perfect choice to guide us through it. In Turing, Cumberbatch shows us a man whose obsessions destroyed his life, but changed the world. It’s a story worth knowing, even if the telling is slightly flawed.