Just as I half expected, no sooner do I turn in my top 10 movies of 2014 than I see one that definitely would have made the list (See “Bleak times and shiny new beginnings,” page 16). The Imitation Game is a taut, psychologically complex drama about a side of World War II that remained a closely held government secret for decades after the war ended. It’s excellent drama and reasonably good history.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose team of cryptographers broke Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, which up to then had been considered unbreakable. Hitler’s government continued to consider it unbreakable and used it throughout the war; the British were so good at disguising the true source of their intelligence intercepts that the Nazis never suspected that, in a sense, Winston Churchill was reading Adolf Hitler’s mail.
Cumberbatch’s masterful performance dominates the movie, inevitably evoking his updated version of Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock. But where his Sherlock is smooth and lofty, his Turing is lofty with rough, jagged edges that keep rubbing people the wrong way. For example, his superiors—the exasperated naval Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, in an amusing turn, alternately blasé and sputtering); and Stewart Menzies of MI6 (Mark Strong), who harbors a sneaking suspicion that Turing just might be as brilliant as he says he is. Then there are Turing’s teammates—chess master Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and math whizzes John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). They all find Turing’s odd personality abrasive—at one point Alexander huffs, “To pull off this eccentric genius bit, one really has to be a genius.” The only one who doesn’t bridle at Turing’s tactlessness is the only woman on the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom Turing forms a friendship that surprises them both. In real life, as in the movie, Turing impulsively proposed marriage to Clarke, then broke the engagement, admitting to her that he was homosexual.
The script by Graham Moore (from Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing) streamlines Turing’s story—eliminating a lengthy visit to America in 1942, for example. The script also seems to conflate Turing’s wartime code-breaking a bit with his postwar work on early first-generation computers. Still, Turing’s prodigious contribution in both areas is undeniable, and Moore is well within the acceptable bounds of dramatic license.
A little more problematic is the structure of Moore’s script, a complicated jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards from 1952 (when a burglary in his home led to Turing’s being prosecuted for “gross indecency” under British anti-gay laws of the time), to the war years, and to Turing’s adolescence in the 1920s, when his budding love for schoolmate Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) ended sadly with Morcom’s death from tuberculosis. The structure gets a little awkward at times—early scenes have to be date-stamped to help us get our bearings—but director Morten Tyldum (a Norwegian making his English-language debut) smooths the transitions into an expression of Turing’s own complexity. In Tyldum and Moore’s telling, the loss of Morcom heightened Turing’s sense of isolation and his inability to play well with others.
Put that way, it sounds almost facile, but it doesn’t play that way, largely thanks to the King’s Speech-style gloss that Tyldum and Moore provide (along with cinematographer Óscar Faura and production designer Maria Djurkovic), to the expert supporting performances—and most of all to Cumberbatch’s virtuoso portrayal of Turing himself.
And just in passing, I want to mention young Alex Lawther, who plays Turing at age 16. It’s an extraordinarily subtle and poignant turn that enriches Cumberbatch’s own performance, the way Hugh O’Conor did for Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, or Noah Taylor for Geoffrey Rush in Shine. Cumberbatch will surely reap kudos—maybe even awards—for The Imitation Game, and he deserves them. But here’s hoping he has the grace to share the credit.