There is a scene in The Imitation Game where a young Alan Turing is introduced to a book of codes and cyphers by his classmate and friend Christopher. The significance of this moment is obvious (Look, it’s the exact moment Alan Turing became the Alan Turing we all know!!!). But Graham Moore’s script plays this moment as a different kind of discovery. There’s no glint in Alan’s eye as he catches a glimpse of a future in which he fathers computer science while cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code, wins the war, and is later played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch. Instead, Alan recognizes a comparison between cyphers and the way people talk. Turing, who is thought to have had Aspergers Syndrome, cannot process metaphors and irony because of his extreme literalism. The concept of coded communication gives him a better understanding of how people don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say. This, not his mathematical genius, is his gateway into code-breaking, and it’s one of many beautiful nuances in the film.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Imitation Game, like Turing, is overly formulaic. The film adapts Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, about the mathematical savant who was the biggest contributor to deciphering Nazi communications with his cryptanalytic machine. This true story could have been an otherwise simple and inspiring tale about an extraordinary Brit, alongside the likes of The Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech, if it weren’t for one major tarnish. In 1952, Turing was convicted of indecency (read: homosexual acts) and made to take hormone treatments in place of a prison sentence. He killed himself two years later. This understandably requires a different kind of film.
Queen Elizabeth II’s royal pardon of Turing in 2013 makes Turing’s story all the more poignant and necessary. However, director Morten Tyldum aims so earnestly to inspire and uplift that at times he fails to honestly deliver what makes this story so damn tragic. Take the scene in which Turing tries to propose marriage to his partner in math Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). He’s bumbling and awkward and charming, while she’s adorably oblivious. But this moment dishonors the subtext–that Turing needs a beard to hide his homosexuality and she needs a male to ward off her suspicious parents. They’re two fascinating societal outcasts who’ve been reduced to Harry and Sally.
Then there’s the Spartacus scene. After days without any results from Turing’s mysterious and expensive machine, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) storms the lab with a cadre of soldiers to shut down the computer. Just as they’re about to carry Turing away, his fellow code-breakers arrive in the nick of time to stand up for him. If Denniston fires Turing, they proclaim, one after another, then he’ll just have to fire them too. It’s a scene that begs for a standing ovation, but we can’t help but imagine the actors are reading from cue cards.
Nonetheless, beneath this sentimental facade, there are really inspired aspects that could have set this film far above other biopics. Turing’s autistic qualities (the literalism, antisocial behavior, introverted posture) paint him as a quirky, mechanistic black box that, like his computer, seems to be hiding so much more underneath its cold exterior. Meanwhile, the flashbacks of his youth at boarding school reveal instances where, despite incessant bullying for being “different,” Turing is made to feel human for the first time (and maybe the last) by his friend Christopher. The sexual undercurrent between them, though never heavy handed, highlights the older Turing’s loneliness once we realize Christopher was never here to stay.
Much of the dialogue is snappy and hilarious, arming the actors with a fully British arsenal of understatement and sarcasm. The cast does a fine job of maintaining stiff upper lips, even in the most emotional scenes. Charles Dance can make it snow with his icy stare and Matthew Goode can turn any math equation into a charming come-on. They’re characters who can never be too dry and stuffy because it’s wartime England, after all, and that’s just how one keeps calm and carries on, etc.
The movie’s secret weapon is easily Benedict Cumberbatch. You’d think Commanding-Presence-Khan-berbatch would have brought a quicker end to the war, but Shrinking-Violet-RainMan-berbatch is a pleasant surprise. He really sells the social awkwardness punctuated with mathematical self-confidence, and not in a cocky Sherlock way either. This alone proves that he’ll be a character actor to look out for in his career, but it’s the atomic bomb of a scene at the end, in which he confesses to Joan that he’s been chemically castrated by the state, that also cements him as a leading man. He makes a film about Turing worth seeing, no matter what the formula.