The Weinstein Company
“Pay attention,” Alan Turing implores to a dazed police officer (and, quite frankly, to a likely dazed audience, who don’t understand why a film about World War II code breaking kicks off in 1951 England). Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, the long-in-the-making biopic about forward-thinking computer genius and prodigious cryptographer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mostly paint by the numbers affair, lifted by consistently compelling performances and the kind of dramatic narrative that could only happen in the real (and very cruel) world.
Adapted by screenwriter Graham Moore from Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” The Imitation Game leads us through the highlights (and the horrifying lowlights) of Turing’s life, principally focused on his time working for the British government, assigned to crack the German Enigma code during the height of WWII. Turing was, to put it extremely simply, a complicated fellow – highly intelligent, socially awkward, and mostly interested in being alone – and Cumberbatch captures his various moods and modes with ease. The Imitation Game may be a touch more neat and nifty than it should be, but Cumberbatch’s work is enough to mark it as something very special indeed.
The film utilizes a wraparound storytelling conceit to illuminate “past” Turing (the one working on the Ultra project, with occasional forays into his mostly heartbreaking years in school) through the events that forever altered his life in the variable “present” (1951, when the war was long over, but Turing’s own personal battles continued to rage). The narrative device doesn’t always work, even as it’s incredibly necessary to share the later events in Turing’s life in order to understand the full scope of it, the kind of wrenching and unsettling occurrences that don’t fit so neatly in the heroic biopic mold that the rest of the movie occupies.
We first meet Turing in 1951, after a botched burglary calls the attention of the police, whom Turing isn’t interested in aiding. A curious detective (Rory Kinnear) doesn’t buy Turing’s disinterest in launching a criminal investigation, convinced that the now-professor is hiding something. As he digs deeper, the feature flits between the investigation and back into Turing’s work during the war. But what’s there to find that we can’t already glean from the principal narrative, which is far more compelling on its own?
The film is often on-the-nose with other elements, too, from the detective’s steadfast belief that he thinks “Alan Turing’s hiding something” (what, really?) to a sequence that moves from someone smirking at how Turing wasn’t popular at school to an actual flashback to Turing being, well, just not popular at school. It’s a little too neat and way too simple for a film about a genius partially responsible for the creative of modern computing technology, but it will certainly allow the film to feel readily consumable to large audiences (and that’s not a bad thing).
Yet, The Imitation Game works itself into a very satisfying flow, and by the time Turing sets about crafting his machine – named Christopher, an emotional beat that stings as soon as we understand what it means – the film is difficult to turn away from. It may be remarkably standard storytelling, but the fine details that Cumberbatch layers into his performance, along with well-crafted historical elements and an engaging story, elevate the entire film to a higher plane.
Cumberbatch’s performance is often quite remarkably understated. The actor doesn’t go for big, obvious choices, and his restrained work is a new career high for him, and his work as Turing will most likely remain a signature performance in what (we can only hope) is a very long career. The supporting cast is stellar, too, especially Keira Knightley as Turing’s best friend and fellow breaker and Matthew Goode as his former boss, who echo Cumberbatch’s low-key constraint, with equally solid results. Only Mark Strong, normally so dependable, doesn’t too much with the material, and is often outshined by second-string members of the code breaking crew, including Allen Leech and Matthew Beard.
Turing’s life story is inherently cinematic, and it certainly deserves to be seen, but Cumberbatch is the main event here, making something almost impossible (capturing such a man as Turing in a tidy two-hour package) look easy, important, and appropriately imperfect.
The Upside: Cumberbatch turns in an absolutely stunning (and surprisingly understated) work, the majority of the supporting cast is excellent (especially Knightley and Goode), hits big emotional beats in a satisfying manner, effectively shares an important and compelling life.
The Downside: The wraparound story (while necessary) doesn’t always work, the first act drags, Mark Strong isn’t doing his best work, a number of sequences are distractingly neat and on-the-nose.
On the Side: Leonardo DiCaprio was originally slated to play Turing.