After dozens of festival screenings, starting with Telluride in late August, this biopic of eccentric British master code breaker Alan Turing has arrived as one of this year’s holiday gifts for the American filmgoer. It’s a lovely year end present. Near perfect, and damn entertaining with moments of thrills, triumph, and sadness.
Benedict Cumberbatch, a massively talented go-to actor these days, can be heard in two other films this season: the poorly received “Penguins of Madagascar”(Go see it! It’s funny!) and Peter Jackson’s trilogy-ending “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.” His big-screen range covers American in “12 Years a Slave” and “August: Osage County,” to Australian, in the underwhelming drama-thriller biography “The Fifth Estate,” in which he played WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, to the genetically-enhanced Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” On television, you know he made a fabulous Sherlock Holmes. And now he’s the introspective, outspoken mathematician-computer scientist later persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality.
The story, as written by Graham Moore from a book by Andrew Hodges, roams around Turing’s life: his early school days as a crypto-curious child prodigy that brings out notions of his confused sexuality; the thrilling years working with a group of fellow brainiacs during World War II to break German secret code; and in Manchester during the early part of the 1950s, when he was under the indecent eye of his country’s misguided criminal justice system. In not so glamorous a way, this last era of Turing’s life reminds me of my brother, Alan, who, over 30 years ago had his top-secret security clearance suspended while working at the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency. While employed as a cartographer there, he came out of the closet, and the federal government felt that his sexual preferences could be used against him by the enemy. Lawsuits ensued; my brother lost them all. He’s now a travel agent.
As Cumberbatch absorbs his character (and we get hooked on him), we get to know the fascinating, humbling role he played in winning the war. We also get a taste of his social awkwardness, where insults fly with indifference and without regard for their discourteous effect. Where jokes in light conversation often become literal missiles gone astray of comprehension (“[Jokes.] I’m afraid I don’t know what those are…”). The running gag is his continued social discomfort. And you can laugh at these instances; the script allows you to exercise the release. As personified in Moore’s excellent screenplay, there are also touches of dark foresight for those who recall Turing’s suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954 (Sorry, that should have been a spoiler alert.), or the name he gave his Enigma cracking device at the deciphering center at Bletchley Park. He uses well-placed hooks to link these segments, as when one character sarcastically comments “Popular at school, were you?” which leads into the first look at his tortured days at Sherborne School, where Turing (played here by Alex Lawther) is rescued from imprisonment beneath a school room’s floorboards by the dashing, understanding Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon).
Many of the actual sites (Bletchley Park, Sherborne School) were used in the film (although interiors were shot elsewhere in England), adding to the film’s feeling of authenticity. That couldn’t make Norwegian director Tyldum happier. Do catch his earlier thriller-caper “Headhunters,” which obviously lead to his assignment on “The Imitation Game.”
One of the best things about the film is the exceptional cast that surrounds Cumberbatch, including Keira Knightley as his friend, faux fiancée, and fellow cryptographer Joan Clarke, as well as Matthew Goode, Allen Leech (Tom Branston on “Downton Abbey”), and Peter Beard as the team members, with Mark Strong as their MI6 overseer.
Absorbing score; tremendous, earthy palette blending a war-weary production design and flowing camerawork; precise editing; and great, even thrilling, direction by Morten Tyldum in his English-language debut, who flavors the story with snippets of war-torn England (most effectively in a sequence that blends crossword puzzles, the bombing of London, and tardiness, which leads to Knightley’s entrance into the film at the end of the film’s first half-hour). The cloud of a Soviet double agent is tossed in the mix (and the 1950s Turing witch hunt started as a Communist conspiracy, according to the movie). Of course, all the hard work to win WWII results in the many failures and one marvelous, heart-stopping success by the group as they huddle around the clacking of the Bombe, as the electromechanical, code-breaking device developed by Turing was known. You become endeared to this tired, crazed man-on-a-mission, whose exhortations at more than one time fall on the deaf ears of his superiors. Damn you Commander Denniston (a stern Charles Dance).
And damn British authorities who mandated the hormonal therapy (in lieu of jail time) against one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. A postscript subtitle at the film’s end reminds the viewer that over more than a quarter century, ending in 1967, nearly 49,000 homosexual men were convicted of gross indecency under British law. I’d like to think society is more enlightened these days, but the tragedy writ large in “The Imitation Game” could easily be found amongst the little minds that run governments around the world today.
Cumberbatch will earn an Oscar nod, with the main competition coming from his countryman Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Interestingly, Cumberbatch portrayed the renown theoretical physicist in the cosmology series “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” in 2010. “The Imitation Game” is a triumph.