To my mind, “The Imitation Game” is the best film of the year: a gripping tale of wartime espionage and code-breaking that also manages to be the character study of an important figure whose contributions have been ignominiously ignored.
Morten Tyldum’s film tells the story of Alan Turing, played with vulnerable sangfroid by Benedict Cumberbatch. A genius with limited social skills and a secret about his sexuality, he was the head brain on England’s effort to crack Germany’s Enigma code. Though England had managed to steal one of Germany’s Enigma machines, it had no way to crack a code that could contains millions of variations and was changed every day.
But the film is bookended by a post-war episode in Turing’s life: an arrest in the early 1950s that led to a conviction for homosexuality, illegal in England until the mid-1960s. Secrets seem to permeate Turing’s life, both personal and professional.
As a Cambridge math professor, he was recruited by MI6 to join a team of cryptographers at Bletchley Park, to break the code sent out each day by the Germans, in messages detailing their ship, submarine and troop movements. England had been particularly badly hurt by German U-boats, which regularly picked off supply ships headed for Great Britain from the U.S. and Canada.
The British regularly intercepted the German messages, but, at the point that Turing is recruited, have not been able to discern their meaning. Turing, who was already working on some of the earliest manifestations of computers, decides that the only thing that can match wits with the Enigma machine is another machine, of his own invention.
But the obstacles facing him include a team that doesn’t believe in his ideas and doesn’t particularly like him because of the superior attitude he makes no effort to disguise. He also runs up against the stiff certainty of the naval officer in charge of the project (Charles Dance), who can’t believe Turing’s audacity in asking for thousands of pounds in electronic supplies to build his machine.
Turing feels it necessary to complain to Winston Churchill himself about the quality of the codebreakers he’s been tethered to. To find new ones, he creates a crossword puzzle that is placed in London newspapers – and anyone who can solve it gets a second test to pick new minds for him to work with. He comes up with a young secretary named Joan (Keira Knightley), who becomes not only one of his most trusted colleagues but also one of his best friends – to the point that he offers to marry her, just to keep her on his staff (her parents think she should be back home finding a mate).
The levels of code here are intriguingly layered. Aside from the literal code that Turing and his team tackle, there is Turing’s own struggle with societal codes he can’t quite get a grasp of. Turing can’t fathom the simplest of interpersonal communication signals between human beings because he considers it irrelevant to his larger goals. As a result, he lacks both subtlety and restraint in talking to his coworkers.
The other has to do with the antipathy toward homosexuality. Turing knows enough to mostly keep it to himself – but he refuses to lie about who he is. That, in turn, opens him prosecution, much to the chagrin of the police detective (Rory Kinnear) who arrests him, thinking he’s uncovered a spy ring.
There aren’t many actors who can project an air of superiority and still be likable, but Cumberbatch walks that tightrope ably, giving the viewer glimpses behind the blasé exterior to the fear and insecurity – as well as the fierce intelligence – that lurks within.
His supporting cast – including Knightley, Dance, Mark Strong and Matthew Goode – provides him with strong sparring partners, with whom to cross intellectual swords. Still, Turing isn’t one for arguing, which is what makes these clashes entertaining, particularly the frustration in his adversary at Turing’s assumption that his rightness will eventually be acknowledged.
Shot with a sense of how to make the intellectual seem dynamic, “The Imitation Game” is fulfilling and compelling, engulfing the viewer in its multiple storylines. Intelligence is rarely this exciting.