Benedict Cumberbatch is preternaturally good at playing supercilious geniuses, first Sherlock Holmes and now, in “The Imitation Game,” Alan Turing, the English cryptanalyst who helped the Allies win World War II by cracking the German Enigma code. His performance – wary, brittle, yet deeply felt – is a great deal more interesting than the movie itself, which is in the tasteful British biopic mode.
Turing was 27 in 1939 when he, along with a cadre of like-minded math whizzes, was recruited by the British government to solve the seemingly unbreakable radio-broadcast cipher, with its many millions of permutations changing daily. He can barely tolerate his co-workers, including two-time chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and for a dismaying stretch no real progress is made until Turing, fired by his superior (Charles Dance), secures permission from Winston Churchill himself to keep calm and carry on. Constructing a room-size device with spinning wheels and discs – a proto-computer – he eventually hits upon the solution. I can’t recall if anyone yells “eureka” but they might as well have.
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, making his English-language film debut, and screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’s biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma”) are button-down craftsmen. Given the levels of fear and anxiety inherent in this story, their approach is altogether too decorous.
It’s not just the wartime anxieties that get played down. Turing’s personal story is also muted. A closeted homosexual at a time when being gay in England was a criminal offense, he was arrested in 1952 for “gross indecency,” subjecting himself to chemical castration before killing himself two years later, at age 41.
Tyldum opens the film in 1952 before flashing back to 1939, so the ominous note is set early, but this ploy mostly functions as a tease. The tragedy of Turing’s demise is as neatly wrapped as everything else in the movie.
His only soul mate at Bletchley Park, home to the Government Code and Cypher School, is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a puzzle whiz to whom he briefly proposes marriage before admitting his true proclivities. (Her entrance into the otherwise all-male corps is accomplished by solving in record time a highly difficult crossword puzzle administered by Turing, although the movie doesn’t make clear that the puzzle was not the ordinary variety but the devilishly devious cryptic-clued crosswords favored by the British.) Knightley is charming and somewhat underutilized in the role. I would imagine that the real Joan Clarke had a few more rough edges than this smiley helpmate.
The line that gets repeated several times in this film, by both Turing and Clarke, is “It’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects.” This sounds good, but in fact Turing was spotted early on as a genius. What was unexpected was that his talents would end up being used to save the world.
To Cumberbatch’s credit he never turns Turing into a righteous crusader. His obsession with cracking Enigma was essentially a world-class intellectual exercise. The only interesting dramatic development here is that, when the code is broken, the code-breakers are duty-bound to keep that fact a secret and only selectively prevent future attacks. To do otherwise would tip off the Germans. Turing and the others are forced to choose who is to live and die.
Like “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game” is worth seeing for its central performance. Cumberbatch deserved a stronger movie, but at least Tyldum had the good sense to let him loose. Few actors can portray intelligence in a way that honors the audience’s own. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material, and historical smoking.)