Alan Turing was the man responsible for breaking the Enigma code, the machine that encrypted Nazi U-boat communications during World War Two. Capable of one-hundred-and-fifty billion combinations, at the stroke of midnight each day it would swap to another setting, making Britain’s studies during the last twenty-four hours all but worthless. Before Turing’s efforts, Enigma was considered unbreakable. Morten Tyldum’s (Headhunters) The Imitation Game isn’t a watered down, try not to offend anyone, biopic. Graham Moore’s first feature-length screenplay examines what a man with a such a mind would have been like, the moral dilemmas he faced conducting top secret research, and how Turing, a national hero unbeknownst to the British public due to the Official Secrets Act, was treated once it was discovered, in 1952, that he was homosexual.
Moore’s script could have been a two-hour mess, as it bounces back-and-forth across Turing’s life: The teenage years at Cambridge, bullied by the other students, and his growing awareness of his sexuality; his struggles to crack the ever-changing Enigma code; and the police investigation into Turing, suspecting that he is committing acts of “gross indecency”. You can tell the screenplay has been through numerous re-writes, there is not a single scene or piece of dialogue that feels redundant. Moore does that talented and rare thing of coming up with a fast-paced film that doesn’t scrimp on insights and observations of its lead character.
As for its lead character, Benedict Cumberbatch, you could argue, gives his best performance yet. An international star as Sherlock Holmes in the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss TV series, and playing the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, this performance is less showy than his more recent film and TV work. Here he treads a fine line between arrogant egocentric and anguished vulnerability. Tactless and dismissive of anyone without a mind anywhere close to his, Cumberbatch’s Turing displays naïve, childlike behaviour, whether it’s the blank, uncomprehending looks he gives when he watches men and women flirting, or how he curls up in a ball and cowers when threatened with violence. Turing asks, “Am I a man or a machine?” The answer, by the time The Imitation Game’s credits come up, is undoubtedly a man, but Turing needed someone or something – much like Christopher, the machine he built to break the Enigma code – to translate the thoughts and feelings going on inside him. Whether Cumberbatch wins an Oscar for his portrayal of Turing, he easily deserves a Best Actor nomination.
Keira Knightley, when given a role she can do something with, is a skilled actress. As cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, she is Turing’s interpreter; she knows him and what is going on inside his head. Tragically, what Turing fails to realise is that Clarke agrees to marry him because she doesn’t just understand him, Turing is the only man who understands her. Compassionate, but also fiery, frustrated that she has to work in secret with Turing and his team (a woman can’t be involved in such an important, undercover project), Knightley gives a wholly credible performance as Clarke.
While The Imitation Game is nowhere near as bland and mild as Brian Percival’s The Book Thief, you get the sense that Tyldum and Moore have played around with some of the facts. It feels like the truth’s been stretched when we find out one of the code-breaking team has a brother on a civilian convoy ship, Turing having the impossible decision of whether to save the ship and risk the Nazis knowing Enigma has been compromised. The biggest offender is Turing’s sexuality being hinted at rather than shown; this is far from Brokeback Mountain with a Cambridge graduate twang. Despite Cumberbatch doing a stunning job portraying Turing’s turmoil at having to lie day-by-day, trying to fool everyone, this is down to commercial rather than artistic reasons; getting the film a 12A instead of a 15 rating.
Intelligent, unapologetically emotional, and compelling, The Imitation Game is one of the best character studies you will see in cinemas this year. Sensitively handled, this is a lesson in how important, defining moments in history should be portrayed on-screen. With all the awards buzz around the film, hopefully Hollywood will take note.
4 out of 5