Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Roy Kinnear, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon
Running Time: 114 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
In the historical heroes gallery that comprises this year's Best Picture race, World War II codebreaker and cryptanalyst Alan Turing stands out from the pack. Not only because his story's so different, but because so few have heard of him or that story until recently. With The Imitation Game, director Morten Tyldum makes a biopic that doesn't feel like one even when going through the usual motions because its subject transcends it, as does Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant lead performance. It's been endlessly compared to The Theory of Everything but other than both being British biopics about tortured geniuses, there are very few similarities aside from sharing a stigma they were made as awards bait. While Everything was very much traditional biopic that methodically walked us through Stephen Hawking's marriage and illness, careful not to ruffle any feathers, this is an exciting sprint through the life and work of a complicated and persecuted man at odds with his own identity.
When this ends, you're able to understand exactly what he did and why it was so important, even if his story's the biographical equivalent of a tree falling in the forest, with someone accomplishing a feat so risky and ahead of its time it couldn't be revealed for nearly 50 years. The unheralded father of artificial intelligence and computers, Turing's odd quirks and anti-social behavior draw closer comparisons to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network than a legend history ignored. But carrying the heavy load of his "big secret" during an unfortunately intolerant time is what ultimately caused his undoing and eventual anonymity, even in death. Tyldum's efforts go a long way toward correcting that.
Occasionally jumping back-and-forth through time between his days being bullied at boarding school in 1927 and eventual arrest and interrogation as a college professor in 1951, the bulk of the film centers on Alan Turing's (Cumberbatch) time working at England's Bletchley Park at the height of World War II. After an awkward, confrontational interview with Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), the arrogant but gifted Turing is hired and eventually put in charge of a covert cryptography team that includes Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). Appointed by the government to secretly decrypt the Nazi Enigma machine, Turing oversees a group of men who neither like nor respect him, building a machine named "Christopher" that he hopes can decode the German encryptions. Controversially, he also adds a woman, Cambridge grad Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to the team. But with Denniston breathing down his neck for immediate results and a secret life that could potentially destroy him, Turing will have to learn how to play nice with others if there's to be any chance of saving lives and eventually ending the war.
Turing is immediately introduced as a conceited oddball who's to difficult to work with and nearly impossible to work for. He doesn't listen, can't look you in the eye, has problems carrying on a normal conversation and does whatever he wants regardless of the consequences or how it effects anyone else. He often comes off as an Apergers sufferer before anyone knew what it was or how to diagnosis it, with his saving grace being that he's a genius who's right about nearly everything. The machine represents the apex of his intellectual capabilities, but whether he'll admit it or not, he needs the help in honing and perfecting it to accomplish its code-breaking goal.
The push and pull of the story is Turing's constant battles with his entire team since his mind doesn't have the time or capacity for dealing with people. The lone exception is Joan, whom he goes to bat for reasons more complicated than it first appears. At first, it seems as if he's just simply using her abilities to get this done. We then suspect he might be unselfishly pushing her to fulfill her potential. And then briefly, Graham Moore's script begins hinting at a burgeoning romance between the two. This is where the movie turns on its heels and heads in an entirely new direction, as Turing's closeted homosexuality comes to the surface and threatens to end him, insuring he'll face criminal charges or worse.
Turing's secret is one he didn't even seem to be in on himself or refuses to acknowledge as reality in those times, as his misguided marriage proposal to Joan confirms. He just knows he's "different." And that's really the prism through which the whole film and Cumberbatch's work in it can be viewed, so it's strange many feel the script brushes this aspect under the rug. Every scene is about his inability to fit in, most especially ones opposite the similarly marginalized and underestimated Joan and the flashbacks to his childhood (featuring a great Alex Lawther performance as young Turing).
It's only by cracking Enigma that he can escape all this, and because Tyldum is so good at showing rather than telling, it's these scenes that crackle with the most tension and excitement. It isn't just solving Enigma, but the actions need to be taken afterwards to insure they maximize the intel they have without tipping off the Germans. They're walking a thin line that ends up introducing all sorts of complicated moral questions that the characters and audience wouldn't immediately consider. The cruelest irony is that even after Turing figures it all out, saving millions of lives and ending the war, the secret of his heroic actions isn't the one that ends up getting out. It's the other one, and it destroys him.
Cumberbatch is a revelation in this, called upon to reflect two entirely different dimensions to Turing's personality. There's the quirky, arrogant genius and the vulnerable, frightened child that's still very prevalent from the earlier flashbacks. It isn't until the third act that they completely converge and we're able to gain a full appreciation and understanding of the subtle acting choices he made earlier. While Turing may have had deeper problems co-existing with others, it's his sexuality that proves to be his true undoing. It's now insensitive to refer to it as a "handicap" or "disability," but at the time it was viewed as that or far worse, and Cumberbatch rightly plays it as such.
The film rarely cuts corners in that regard, as reluctant in revealing it as he is until the time comes to hammer home its importance in determining his tragic trajectory. Opposite him, Knightley delivers her typically solid period drama performance, which is to say she's completely effective without necessarily impressing. She can do this in her sleep, but at least here she's afforded the added benefit of playing a character of agency who can't be the love interest. But I still say her career best performance in Begin Again from earlier in the year would have made for a far worthier acting nomination.
One of the harsher criticisms leveled against the film is that even as well done as it is, this is something you'd just as easily be able to see as a television miniseries on History, PBS or BBC. But given the high quality of dramatic TV these days, is that really such an insult? While I'd agree there's nothing especially noteworthy about Tyldum's direction, a lot can be said for knowing when you have a compelling story and just getting of the way to let your actors tell it. Like most of the "based on a true story" awards contenders this year, creative liberties were likely taken with key facts, but here you can legitimately marvel at the surprising facts we do get, or that we've gotten any at all considering the unusual circumstances. The Imitation Game is absorbing and sincere enough to take the line, "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine" and make it seem like more than just an empty platitude.