Morten Tyldum's Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game feels like a fusion of two movies, one of which is superb and the other of which is quite good. The former is a tense, gripping WWII spy drama which focuses on Turing's groundbreaking efforts to decrypt impossibly complicated Nazi codes. The latter is a sentimental melodrama which places the spotlight on the consequences Turing faced (on both a legal and personal level) for being a homosexual in an era in which such things weren't accepted by the government or society in general. You wouldn't think a story which feels ripped from the pages of a John le Carre novel would fit comfortably with a story Douglas Sirk might have enjoyed exploring, but the two sides of the film manage to congeal into an alternately thrilling and moving whole. The movie runs out of steam around the same time the war does, but thankfully that isn't until we're pretty close to the finish line.
We first meet Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness) in the office of British Commander Alistair Denniston (Charles Dance, operating in Tywin Lannister mode), who is attempting to convince Turing to join the British government in the fight against Hitler. Alan may be a politically neutral figure with little interest in international affairs (even something as obviously noble as stopping Hitler), but he's also one of the nation's brightest minds. Defeating the Germans is going to take far more than military might, and Denniston knows it. The Germans have developed an advanced form of code called Enigma, which most have claimed is impossible to crack. Turing agrees to give the task a shot, but quickly proves difficult to work with: he alienates his co-workers, makes expensive demands of his superiors and generally demonstrates a lack of even rudimentary social skills. Even so, the machine he's attempting to build (which he dubs “Christopher”) might just manage to get the job done.
Meanwhile, Turing serves as something of a mentor for a young female recruit named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice). In 1941, it's highly irregular for a female to be working in such a male-dominated environment, but Joan demonstrates a level of skill which far exceeds that of her peers. Eventually, Turing begins to develop a genuine bond with her, and even contemplates the possibility of romance despite the fact that he's clearly only attracted to men. Additionally, Turing finds himself in an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Denniston, who quickly tires of Turing's challenging personality and begins looking for any excuse to fire him.
Tyldum's directing of the codebreaking material is nothing short of masterful, leaving us with knots in our stomach as we watch Turing and his associates frantically scribbling down notes and nervously watching machinery click, whir and buzz (meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat's intelligently-constructed score tinkles, swirls and occasionally soars). At its best, The Imitation Game is the sort of gripping, strategy-driven WWII thriller that Valkyrie desperately wanted to be, and it's fascinating to observe the way Graham Moore's script uses a handful of fairly well-developed relationship dramas – between Turing and Joan, Turing and his underlings, Turing and Denniston, etc. - to enrich, complicate and inform the larger effort to crack Enigma. It's remarkable how many threads of Turing's life (most real, some fabricated) the film strings together, building to a knockout punch of a scene between Cumberbatch and Mark Strong (playing a powerful, even-handed government official) which sees Turing attempting to maintain his composure as every single element of his personal and professional life attempts to rip him apart at the seams.
Cumberbatch plays Turing as a brilliant but socially inept man who almost certainly places somewhere on the autism spectrum, and he doesn't shy away from the man's unlikable qualities. Turing is a misunderstood genius, yes, but he's also capable of being clinical to point of inhumanity (observe the cruel manner in which he fires two co-workers for inefficiency early on, immediately alienating him from his remaining co-workers). Even so, you feel deeply for him precisely because Cumberbatch refuses to shamelessly tug at our heartstrings. His consistent desire to think logically rather than emotionally frequently leads to decisions made at his own expense. Turing knows the importance of the device he's inventing, and he knows that it needs to be kept secret at all costs. Sometimes – as one harrowing sequence so wrenchingly illustrates – the lives of hundreds of innocent people must be sacrificed in order to save the lives of millions. It makes sense on paper, but it's hard to reckon with when you're watching the lucky survivors return home with missing limbs and broken spirits.
Knightley turns what could have been a thankless character into a memorably affecting one. Turing gave her a chance to thrive for purely practical reasons, but she interprets this as an act of kindness and reciprocates by making an effort to see past Alan's chilly eccentricities. She's an audience surrogate of sorts, but an atypically intriguing one: she feels for Alan the things he can't feel for himself. There's an exchange between Alan and Joan late in the film, in which he works up the nerve to tell her something difficult. Joan's response – and the marvelously delicate, tender way Knightley plays it – is a thing of melancholy beauty.
At various points throughout the film, we jump back to passages from Turing's teenage year which detail his more-than-friendship with a fellow classmate. These might have been dull additions were it not for the remarkable performance of Alex Lawther (X+Y) as young Turing, who's heartbreakingly good as a version of the character who hasn't yet developed the older version's chilly, mechanical coping mechanisms. It's consistently affecting stuff which never negatively affects the film's relatively brisk pace (the film moves at a speed somewhere between “drama” and “thriller,” which seems entirely appropriate under the circumstances).
Disappointingly, the film can't quite sustain its creative momentum all the way to the end. The closing stretch attempts to deal with the turbulent final years of Turing's life, when he was given a choice between doing prison time for his homosexual lifestyle or submitting to chemical castration (he chose the latter). It's a horrific scenario that many gay men faced during the era, but the film either should have given it more time or clipped it entirely. As it is, that stretch of Turing's life is largely relegated to a lengthy, exposition-heavy dialogue scene which feels a shade more clumsily melodramatic than the rest of the film. The coda is a little awkward, too, throwing no less than six different chunks of text on the screen in an effort to tie up loose ends. Some of the film's historical alterations are also a little frustrating, particularly the manner in which the screenplay completely alters the facts of what Turing accomplished during the war, exactly (the short version: he perfected a device others had invented, but the film essentially implies that he invented the device himself).
Still, the film's difficulty with figuring out how to wrap things up isn't all that detrimental, as the story the bulk of the film is concerned with telling reaches an effectively challenging conclusion. Tyldum manages the impressive feat of tackling multiple subjects with nuance and threading them all together in a dramatically compelling manner. It's the sort of classical, well-constructed awards season movie that's destined to get overrated, then unfairly dismissed by people attempt to counteract all the praise. You'll be doing yourself a favor by tossing aside all the awards season chatter and permitting yourself to see The Imitation Game for what it is: a damn fine movie and a fascinating portrait of a man too few people are familiar with.
The Imitation Game
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 2014