‘Tis the season for biopics: thus far, they’ve ranged from unreasonably icy Oscar fodder (“Foxcatcher”) to deep, ruminative Oscar fodder (“Wild”) to BBC TV movie-of-the-week style Oscar fodder (though “Theory of Everything” does boast nod-worthy performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones). While “The Imitation Game” might appear by-the-numbers both figuratively and literally, the story is one that is almost beyond belief, and it’s told with equal parts precision and heart.
Helmed by “Headhunters” director Morten Tyldum, the film follows the astonishing achievements of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who figured out how to crack the German’s infamous Enigma machine during World War II by inventing the prototype for the modern computer. Though he and his team (played here by Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard) shortened the war by nearly two years and saved countless lives, Turing ended up being persecuted — and eventually prosecuted — for being gay.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the brilliant, socially awkward Turing, and though the film’s impeccable production quality and pristine set design gives it the veneer of your typically easy-to-digest period piece, the underlying emotional struggle resonates to heartrending effect. Here’s an individual who is tortured, not so much by his own demons but by those of a closed-off society, a theme that calls to attention how fear and ignorance — both at war and at home — can birth a gravely unsympathetic culture. As the film delves into Turing’s formative years and a blossoming first love that is snatched away from him at boarding school, we begin to perceive him as more than an aloof savant, but as a sensitive person entombed by the fear of going to prison simply for being himself.
On the surface, “The Imitation Game” is an intelligent, tightly-wound hybrid of “A Beautiful Mind”, “War Games” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. As the war rages on with no end in sight, Turing is tapped by the military to assist in a Top Secret effort to decrypt messages being sent through a device — the aforementioned Enigma machine — that would reveal all of Germany’s coordinates. (Tension peaks when Turing and co. become privy to an attack on a civilian vessel; they’re left to decide whether to prevent it and reveal to the Nazis that they’ve deciphered the code or allow things play out to the tune of hundreds of casualties).
Early in the movie, after getting carte blanche directly from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Turing promptly re-assesses his team and ends up hiring Joan Clarke (Knightley), a young, sprightly genius whose ability to solve a puzzle in a cryptic want-ad lands her a covert position at Bletchley Park, where Turing constructs his code-cracking behemoth (the machine, a bank of whizzing and whirring tapes, is roughly the size of a school bus). The two develop an interesting, sometimes volatile relationship that results in an unusual arrangement; though it doesn’t become the primary focus of the film, the dynamic between the two is palpable.
The supporting cast might look like a short list for the next Bond villain: Mark Strong plays the head of MI6, and “Game of Thrones” star Charles Dance as the commander in charge of the operation who threatens to fire Turing on more than one occasion. “Skyfall” co-star Rory Kinnear plays the detective who later investigates Turing when the cryptologist’s efforts to keep his sexuality a secret are misinterpreted by the government as the actions of a spy. It could be argued that his punishment was worse than what it would have been for treason.
The film is based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges, and was adapted here by Graham Moore in his first feature-length project. It’s sometimes tough to tell what makes a script good, because great acting can often make deficiencies less evident, just as bad acting can ruin a fantastic screenplay. If Moore’s treatment ever seems watered down, the cast handles the material with Broadway-caliber verve, notably Matthew Goode as Turing’s reluctant colleague Hugh Alexander.
But what’s certainly clear is that Moore wanted to bring Turing to life as an emotional being that very few people actually knew, not just the rigid face of world-changing accomplishments that could be seen on the History Channel. Cumberbatch displays an impenetrable facade one moment, a heartbreaking vulnerability the next. His is one of the best performances of the year.