by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
“The Imitation Game” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant, difficult, tragic mathematician who is sometimes called “the father of the computer.” The film focuses on the WWII period during which Turing, as the head of an elite, top secret team, helped to crack the codes produced by the Nazi’s Enigma machine. As his associates and superiors in that effort, Mark Strange, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, and Allan Leech turn in solid work, helping to set off Turing from his also-intelligent peers. And as Joan Clarke, Turing’s friend and secret helper, Keira Knightley makes a supporting role into a star turn.
This is a suspense movie, of sorts, though the outcome is well-known. Director Morton Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore, working with Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, foreshorten and telescope some of Turing’s story in the interest of dramatic effect and efficiency, in the process making the movie somewhat old-fashioned. On the other hand, their decision to move back and forth between three separate periods in his troubled career — his boyhood, his code-breaking work in his 20s, and the sad last few years that ended in his suicide — maintains our interest throughout.
Turing’s opening voice-over narration reveals something of his prickly character. “I am in control. I know things that you do not know.” Ironically, we discover that he is saying this to a police detective, played by Rory Kinnear, who has arrested him. It’s 1951, and England is in the throes of anti-Communist fear. But the suspicious cop has brought Turing in on a charge of indecent behavior, accusing him of homosexuality, at that time illegal in Great Britain. From here, via Turing’s hostile response to the detective’s interrogation, the story flashes back to his time at Bletchely, the center of code-breaking efforts, then further back to his public school days at Sherborn. (Alex Lawther portrays the young Turing masterfully, suggesting the heartbreak in store for his older self.)
Much of the story’s contemporary and historical interest lies in the depiction of Turing and his associates’ building a competitor to Enigma, which ultimately is named “Ultra,” though Turing calls it “Christopher,” for reasons which add to the film’s considerable emotional heft. The interplay between the enigmatic loner Turing — even his mother styled him an odd duck — and his much more collegial colleagues provide many quietly comic moments, even when the action is deadly serious. (Churchill said that Turing was perhaps the most important man in the war effort, and the Ultra machine may have shortened the war by as much as two years.)
But it is the scenes between Turing and Clarke that the film’s real dramatic achievement appears. Joan is all wit and vivaciousness against Alan’s socially inept, stuttering awkwardness, yet she best appreciates his gifts. And only she is a sufficiently apt puzzle-solver to provide real help in breaking the code. Knightley’s best moment comes, paradoxically, when Alan tells Joan he doesn’t care for her, which she knows is a lie.
“The Imitation Game” is rated “PG-13,” though there is little to offend tenderer sensibilities. It has been called old-fashioned, and it is, following a fairly predictable story arc despite its temporal leaps. It has also been faulted for not fully showing Turing’s work and being more candid about his homosexuality, though these additions would make for a much longer, less available movie — and it might be impossible, in any case. Cumberbatch has to be considered a frontrunner for an Oscar for his performance here, and Knightely may well get a supporting actress nod. My own favorite picture from last year is “Boyhood,” available next week on DVD, but this one is well worth spending some holiday time in the theater.