When The Imitation Game comes around, run, don’t walk, to see it. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s English-language debut, with a fabulously witty and poignant script by up-and-coming screenwriter/novelist Graham Moore, stars a spot-on Benedict Cumberbatch as the British cryptographer and computer science pioneer Alan Turing, backed by a uniformly brilliant cast of co-stars. It has “Oscar-worthy” written all over it.
And yet this is a movie that almost didn’t get made, kicked around Hollywood for years and topping the legendary Black List survey of most-impressive unproduced scripts in 2011. Warner Brothers wanted to (mis)cast Leonardo DiCaprio in it, but let go of the rights when that actor (praise the celluloid gods!) backed out of the project. Ron Howard and David Yates were among the A-list directors showing interest during earlier stages of the project’s development. The fact that most American audiences don’t know Tyldum’s previous work marginally qualifies this production as an indie long shot, I suppose; but the top-shelf actors will certainly pull people in, and they will not regret the experience.
The stars truly aligned for the marketing of The Imitation Game — already in the can by then — when Queen Elizabeth II issued Turing a posthumous Royal Pardon on Christmas Eve of 2013. You see, Alan Turing’s key role in deciphering the Nazi navy’s ever-changing Enigma code during World War II was kept from public knowledge for decades by Britain’s Official Secrets Act; and the man, who should have been lionized as a war hero as well as a scientific genius, died in disgrace in 1954 at the age of 41. After the war his homosexuality became public and he was prosecuted for “gross indecency” by an ungrateful British government. Forced to undergo estrogen treatment as an alternative to prison, Turing soon died of cyanide poisoning — though whether it was suicide or accidental remains a matter of debate, since he used cyanide in some of his laboratory work.
Based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, Moore’s screenplay takes some liberties with the story of how exactly the Enigma code was cracked and the dominance of Turing’s contribution to the top-secret project. For instance, the cryptanalysis machine constructed at Bletchley Park, known as the “bombe,” shown in the film as a single contraption invented singlehandedly by Turing, manifested in real life as more than 200 machines adapted from earlier Polish designs. A subplot involving the penetration of the Government Code and Cypher School by a Soviet mole is conjectural at best, though Turing himself was suspected of espionage during the overheated Cold War atmosphere of the early ‘50s.
The movie also portrays Turing as manifesting rather extreme symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a man utterly unable to grasp the social cues of others. In fact, much of the movie’s surprisingly pungent humor revolves around the premise that Turing himself had no sense of humor whatsoever — whereas at least one of his acquaintances, writer Alan Garner, has remembered him as “funny and witty.”
But no matter; certainly Turing was known in his time as an eccentric, a driven man, superior, argumentative and off-putting to some. And even if he wasn’t the only key player in the deciphering of Enigma, his genius, the originality of his approaches to solving a thorny problem, remains undeniable. Cumberbatch takes the screenwriter’s conception of the character and runs with it for all he’s worth — literally, in the scenes where Turing, also a world-class marathon runner, furiously pounds the paths at Bletchley Park as he’s working out some frustrating design flaw — bringing this mystery man vividly to life. It’s clearly a role that the actor wanted badly; he has said in interviews that he “tracked” the project even while DiCaprio was still attached to it, and he did his homework so well that Turing’s great-nephew has been quoted as saying that the actor “knows things that I never knew before” about the man.
The onscreen narrative moves back and forth in time among his years on the Enigma project; his bullied youth as the “weird kid” at a boarding school, where he first discovers his homosexuality as he falls in love with a sympathetic friend; and his pursuit and arrest later in life by a dogged pair of detectives. One of the latter becomes intrigued by the way that Turing’s mind works during an interrogation session, when the cryptographer engages him in the titular game that he devised to distinguish computer “thinking” from human intelligence.
That’s the narrative framing device, but most of the story plays out at Bletchley Park. Even knowing the outcome as we do, the race against time to get Turing’s machine to work properly is pretty tense thriller material that will be especially meaningful to anyone who has ever done research (or any work, really) whose continuance depends upon the whims of government funding. Even when the key to the Nazi codes is found, the core group of cryptographers, along with their project supervisors in the British military and MI6, are faced with painful decisions about how much intercepted information can be shared and how many lives saved without alerting the German navy to the fact that their system has been compromised.
The Enigma group scenes shine, largely on account of the thespian talent and chemistry concentrated in the ensemble cast. Matthew Goode is charmingly caddish as Turing’s main rival, project team captain Hugh Alexander. Mark Strong as Major General Stewart Menzies gets one of the best lines in the script, briskly denying the existence of MI6 even as he’s introduced as the researchers’ liaison to that agency. Fans of Downton Abbey and the HBO series Rome will be pleased to see the talented Irish actor Allen Leech as John Cairncross, a team member with a secret that his bosses may or may not know about. And any Game of Thrones geek who feels bereft that Tywin Lannister will not return in Season Five, except possibly for his funeral or some flashbacks, will rejoice to know that the great Charles Dance’s character in The Imitation Game, Commander Alistair Denniston, shares Lord Tywin’s imperious, cagey and sarcastic personality. Any scene with Dance in it is among the funniest in the movie, and it’s particularly satisfying to see him overruled by Churchill himself when Denniston wants to pull the plug on the project.
There’s a “romantic” subplot of sorts as well, in which Turing becomes engaged to Joan Clarke, the only woman admitted to the codebreaking group, in order to circumvent her parents’ objections to her working in an all-male environment (for security reasons, she’s not allowed to tell them the critical nature of her work). Keira Knightley believably endows the role with intelligence to match Turing’s own and a simpatico that helps him transition, awkwardly but determinedly, into a man who can work productively with a team, rather than always in isolation.
The film is highly unusual in its refreshing depiction of a deep bond between a man and a woman, not related to one another, that is totally based on mutual respect for each other’s intellect and shared work goals rather than sexual attraction. It’s also a must-see for anyone with a loved one on the autism spectrum; I’ve never seen a more positive such role model onscreen than this flawed character whose “difference” makes all the difference in the world to a world at war.