Much like its subject, mathematician, cryptologist and engineer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is something of an Enigma – pun intended.
While its far from the impenetrable thing that was the Nazi wartime code it combination of being very obvious, totally guileless and somewhat over sentimental sounds like it should be all but unwatchable, but somehow, here, it works to create something that is both informative and entertaining.
The roughly film tells the life story of the aforementioned Alan Turing, largely in flashback from the early 1950s when a break in at his home in Manchester led to a series of events that would ultimately lead to tragedy.
Knightley, Strong and Cumberbatch
So we see Turing in his final years, here portrayed as a still obsessive genius working on the forerunners to modern computers, we see him in his youth (played very well by Alex Lawther) and, for the bulk of the film, we see him in the years between 1939 and 1945 when he was working at Bletchley Park on a top-secret project that would only come to light decades after his death and led to the shortening of the Second World War by an estimated two years.
While phrases like “Based on a true story” are always problematic, the use of a framing conceit instantly makes it clear that this isn’t entirely fact, so some of the moments are a bit convenient and the drama of the clash between Turing, his contemporaries and his commanding officers does play out as somewhat melodramatic but it all works in context to tell the story in a gripping way that gets across what it was Turing and co achieved and the forces at work around them.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
Particularly enlightening in this is the inclusion of MI6, embodied by Mark Strong as Major General Stewart Menzies, and the level of secrecy and espionage the whole Enigma project was subject too. So well delivered are these sequences that there are points where I ended up questioning the allegiances and motives of even Turing himself, despite knowing the actual history, which helps make the film all the more entertaining.
The other thing that helps with the entertainment level is the amount of humour. For a film that deals with some very serious subjects across its 114 minutes, there are very few scenes that don’t, in one way or another, raise a smile. This makes the moments then that are serious all the more impactful and the humour is very cleverly used to always be on Turing’s side despite the fact that, for most comedy, Turing’s “odd duck” personality would be the far easier target and in less skilled hands this could happen unintentionally.
A major part of the film surrounds Turing’s sexuality and this is where things feel a little guileless, but, potentially historically accurate. This is most notable in the use of the word “normal” which, if the film were set today, would feel very un-PC, but in the period setting does feel right and, cleverly, perceived “normality” and its opposite are only used with a negative feeling by more antagonistic characters, so the guileless, period, tone is actually somewhat refreshing.
The centerpiece of The Imitation Game is, of course, Cumberbatch’s performance as Turing and, while it is another outsider genius role (to go along side his Sherlock Holmes and, to a lesser extent, Kahn in Star Trek Into Darkness) he plays it with a different tone that is just what good actors should do with a role. His physicality changes, his vocal stammer is astoundingly well delivered and he is entirely believable as the troubled genius in every stage of his adult life from his awkward introductions to his tragic final years.
This is backed up by Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke who, despite a frustratingly clipped accent, puts in the best performance I’ve ever seen from her and certainly puts the nonsense of Pirates of the Caribbean to rest.
So, while The Imitation Game is clearly made for a mainstream market and all but shouts “nominate this for an Oscar” at every available opportunity, it also manages to tell a genuinely fascinating, gripping, humorous and tragic story with some real historical weight and issue based significance behind it, all centered around a fantastic lead performance while telling a real story that really needs to be told.