imitation-game1

Rating: ★★★¾☆ 

By cracking the Nazis’ seemingly impenetrable Enigma code, Alan Turing turned the tide of World War II. Winston Churchill cited Turing’s efforts as the single biggest contribution to Allied victory. Following the war, Turing’s groundbreaking work with mathematics and machines would usher in the computer age. Simply put, without him the world would likely be a very different place. His reward: an arrest for homosexuality and a sentence of court-induced chemical castration that ultimately prompted his suicide.

The central focus of The Imitation Game is on Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) during his Enigma-cracking years, as his abrasive personality rubs raw the patience of his Allied superiors and his crack team of cryptanalysts alike. But the film also deftly weaves in parallel narratives of his younger years and the ill-fated twilight of his life. We learn how a teenage affection for a boarding school classmate who passed away led Turing to name his Enigma-cracking machine “Christopher,” and we see how the investigation of a burglary on Turing’s home ultimately led to charges against him for having sex with a man.

The Imitation Game crafts a simple enough narrative, especially since the outcome of Turing’s fight to keep his code-cracking efforts going is a foregone conclusion. But where the film showcases the most moving parts is in the often at-odds relationship his co-workers had with the misanthropic Turing. He’s portrayed as a pained soul in many ways, but also as a man who was uniformly driven by the goals at hand, everyone else be damned. Christopher, his machine and obsession, is seen as his sole driving force. But his ineptness at interpersonal communication also imbues the film with moments of great levity. A literalist to his core, Turing can’t even accept an implied lunch invitation because, when asked if he’s hungry, he only responds with a terse “yes” before returning to his work.

The only person the adult Turing forms any kind of bond with is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), an analytically-minded woman whose mastery of a crossword puzzle that Turing devised as an entry test for his team allows her to overcome the sexism of the era and join the code-breakers. Turing goes to great lengths to keep her on his team, ultimately pacifying her demanding, tradition-minded parents by proposing marriage rather than seeing her leave work. Though she is never able to fully break down the emotional walls Turing builds up around himself, she does at least whisper through them. Knightley and Cumberbatch play well off each other, with Joan embodying a more recognizably human form of intelligence than Turing’s cold, computer-like mind.

The Imitation Game joins the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything in a trend of math-based prestige pictures that will likely soon have Oscar implications. Cumberbatch conveys the tortured humanity behind the analytical façade, even if we also understand and even chuckle at how frustrating a person Turing could be to those working closest with him. For a story with such a tragic ending, there’s a great deal of warmth and excitement throughout, even though we know that the daunting Enigma will be unraveled eventually. Cumberbatch deserves all the accolades he will get for offering us insight into one of the 20th century’s most crucial figures, a man as misunderstood as he was a genius.

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