The Imitation Game Directed by Morten Tydlum; written by Graham Moore; with Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
“The Imitation Game,” the enjoyable new film of Norwegian-born director Morten Tydlum, is not the first movie made about Germany’s Enigma encryption code and how the British cracked it during World War II. The Enigma was said to be impossible to decipher, and some believe that the British feat of decryption was the turning point in the war. Several war movies have touched on this episode, and in 2001 Michael Apted directed “Engima,” a largely fictionalized version of the story featuring a made-up hero named Tom Jericho. Mathematician Alan Turing, the hero of “The Imitation Game,” was not even mentioned in Apted’s film.
The reason why it was possible to weave such a fiction around the true story is that the cracking of the code remained shrouded in secrecy for many years. Even now, some of the articles published about “The Imitation Game,” which is based on a 1983 book by Andrew Hodges, continue to claim that not all the details in it are true and that it is still full of invented material, even though it does correct the historical record by placing Turing, a cryptic and even tragic figure, back in the center of the story.
With apologies to all the historians out there, I have to say that given how much I enjoyed “The Imitation Game,” I don’t really care how factually accurate it is. The Enigma story is so gripping, and the hero at its center so intriguing and even endearing, that even if the movie does combine history and myth, to me this only adds to the sense of an intellectual adventure crossed with a private melodrama.
Newcomer Graham Moore’s screenplay gives the story a fairly complex structure. Turing was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a crime punishable by prison in Great Britain; his face and contribution to the triumph over the Nazis were not widely known. The movie begins in 1952, when he is being questioned by a police inspector after his sexual activities are exposed. A flashback then takes us to the early days of the war, when Germany’s hold over Europe is tightening and London is suffering under the Blitz. A group of mathematicians and chess champions are gathered at Bletchley Park and tasked with cracking the German code, which is so complicated that many believe it will take decades to decipher. Turing’s police interrogation is the frame narrative that allows him to tell us the story of what he did during the war. Most of the plot is set at Bletchley Park, but it also includes a few further flashbacks about Turing’s youth in an effort to round out his character.
One of the virtues of “The Imitation Game” is that the connection it creates between Turing’s private story and the historical events in which he takes part does not seem forced; it works, deftly and at times even elegantly. The movie does not bombard us with too much information about how Turing finally figured out the German code. The filmmakers apparently believed, with good reason, that telling us too much about this aspect of the story would dull its dramatic and emotional power. Still, the cracking of the code is conveyed so that it gives a sense of satisfaction and even amusement. The machine Turing builds, and about which his superiors and colleagues are at first extremely skeptical, cannot but be admired, both for its appearance and because it is, in effect, the first computer.
All this turns “The Imitation Game” into a movie whose story we can simply respond to without asking too many questions – a rare treat in cinema these days. The movie is packed with good scenes and fine actors, including Charles Dance as Turing’s hostile superior, Matthew Goode as the chess whiz placed in charge of the decipherers’ team, and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the team’s only woman. Her status there was complicated, calling for clever practical solutions, and she was the only person with whom Turing managed to strike up a kind of friendship.
But above all else, “The Imitation Game” belongs to Turing and to the actor playing him, Benedict Cumberbatch. The latter succeeds in communicating his character’s eccentricity, condescension and aggression without savoring these qualities so much that Turing’s strangeness becomes all he is. More than that: Through all of this, Cumberbatch manages to demonstrate the loneliness and vulnerability of this unlikely hero, who later disappeared into history (it was only last year, many years after his death, that the Queen pardoned him for the sexual “crimes” for which he was prosecuted and even punished). Cumberbatch’s performance could easily have become an extravagant display of human oddness, but it is not, despite a certain extroverted quality. Instead, he manages to make Turing into the film’s beating heart. It is no accident that Cumberbatch’s best moments in this movie are the low-key ones, when Turing simply expresses his dilemmas and difficulties in communicating with the world around him. This kind of moment is the test of a good actor, and Cumberbatch passes it with flying colors.
And so does “The Imitation Game,” a rather traditional, mainstream work that in this case benefits the result. We can simply enjoy the two hours we spend in its presence, getting to know the story and its hero (as well as the actor playing him). While the movie may not become a milestone of contemporary cinema, as long as it is playing we have the opportunity to relish a basic kind of cinematic pleasure, whose availability only makes us understand how sorely it has been missed.