The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch is WWII code-breaker Alan Turing in this Oscar-nominated drama

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The Imitation Game

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Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Tuppence Middleton, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Tom Goodman-Hill, Lee Asquith-Coe, Alex Lawther, Victoria Wicks. Written by Graham Moore, from the novel by Andrew Hodges.

The predominant image of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is that of Alan Turing’s giant machine, tirelessly and slowly churning its gears while trying every combination – brute-force style – to decipher the WWII Enigma cipher. The Nazis were so confident in their coding machine that they freely transmitted messages over the airways, where anyone could intercept them. 

For years, a secret team of British cryptographers endlessly toiled away trying to break each day’s intercepted messages before the code was reset the next day. It wasn’t until Turing came along with his automated machine that the messages were able to be decrypted in time to provide Allied forces with information they could use.

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(Side note: the Enigma machine was originally broken in the early 1930s by Polish cryptologists, whose techniques and equipment were vital for Turing and the later British forces; their accomplishments are notably absent here.)

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Alan Turing was a war hero who saved countless lives, and was awarded an OBE for his work. But because that work was subject to the Official Secrets Act, he never received public recognition for his efforts during his lifetime. 

Turing was also a homosexual who was convicted of indecency in 1952, forced to undergo hormonal treatment, and barred from continuing his cryptographic work for the government. He took his own life in 1954 via cyanide poisoning.

This is a great story, or rather two great stories, and The Imitation Game attempts to tell both of them. And while well-cast and performed, and fully entertaining, Tyldum’s film ultimately fails to do justice to either.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, and the bulk of the film is dedicated to his work at Bletchley Park. There, he works with a team of cryptologists under team leader Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). But Turing lacks people skills, to put it mildly, and frequently finds himself fighting with the others about the best course of action; he needs to be put it charge to develop his machine to its full potential.

In one of the film’s strangest moments, Commander Dennison (Charles Dance) informs Turing that only Winston Churchill can make this happen; so Turing writes to the Prime Minister, and voila! He’s now in charge. Is the film suggesting that Turing holds some homosexual secret about Churchill?

The rest of the Bletchley scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Turing and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the woman he recruits to help out and later marries (even though she is aware of his inclinations). 

And scenes of that big machine cranking away. We have no idea how it was put together, or how it actually works: that may be for the best – this thing is far too complicated for most of us – but as Dance’s Commander requests of Turing early on, it would be nice for the film to explain it to us in a way that we can understand. But no: we just watch these characters stare at the machine as the gears slowly tick away.

“Ah hah!” Turing exclaims during a barroom exchange, comically ruining Hugh’s pickup attempt. He’s finally got it! What if the machine didn’t have to try to decode everything, but instead based its analyses across the common words that end every transmission (“Heil Hitler!”). Brilliant!

But as someone who once did a cryptogram in a local newspaper, I’m sitting there thinking, isn’t that the first damn thing you’d look for

Flashback scenes fare a little better, with a young, lonely Turing sharing an intimate relationship with another boy at a boarding school based on their mutual interest in codes and cryptography. Still, these scenes only amount to a few minutes of screen time.

Post-WWII scenes, framed as a mystery with a Detective (Rory Kinnear) investigating a break-in at Turing’s home and noticing that he’s hiding something, are awkwardly handled (the fact the Turing was a homosexual is handled as a “reveal” halfway through the film), though Cumberbatch and Knightley get a nice emotional climactic scene to share.

A Weinstein-distributed prestige picture, The Imitation Game has somehow picked up eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, though it is unlikely to win in any category. The film tells the Turing story effectively and entertainingly (if not completely faithfully), which will be enough for most audiences. But I needed more.

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