The Imitation Game runs through its biopic paces, reducing a Great Man’s life into a series of easily digestible Big Moments. That the true story it tells is of Alan Turing, a gay man whose life’s work had gone underreported because of prejudice, and because his crucial scientific breakthroughs partially responsible for defeating Hitler remained classified, lends it a degree of importance. Although, given the subject’s wide reporting since files were declassified, it’s not exactly breaking new research ground here. Besides, it’s a movie, one intended to interpret a good story into a satisfying entertainment at that. It’s a World War II picture about people crunching numbers on the home front that’s quietly amazed the war was won, at least in the intelligence arena, by a gay man, a woman, and a roomful of math whizzes.
Graham Moore’s screenplay moves along three parallel tracks. It follows young Turing (Alex Lawther), bullied at boarding school and dealing with the first glimmers of his genius and romantic stirrings. It follows a detective (Rory Kinnear) in the 1950s puzzling out Turing’s secrets. The track is destined to end in tragedy when Turing is outed and charged with indecency in accordance to UK law at the time. These fill in the biopic obligations, giving us childhood context and his sad end, but the most exciting track is the WWII stuff. There director Morten Tyldum makes a brisk historical thriller in which Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code with a team of mathematicians, cryptographers, and spies (Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong). He recruits some fellow number crunchers, chief among them a brilliant young woman (Keira Knightley) kept out of the official inner circle by sexism.
It’s the kind of sanctimonious based-on-a-true-story film that’s pretty proud of itself for its historical importance, so much so the characters sound like they’ve already read the history books about their lives. It’s full of people simplifying and speechifying for our benefit, extolling the virtues of the Turing Machine while sneering at those who think it’s a waste of money as if it should’ve been obvious in the moment the future importance of the project. Elsewhere, characters say things like, “You can’t say you’re gay, Turing. That’s illegal.” Surely there’s a more subtle or elegant way of getting that information out there. It’s an overdose of explanation.
Turing narrates the entire picture, explaining the context of various incidents in his life, a way of getting inside the head of a character portrayed here as so full of egghead eccentricities he might as well have wandered in off the set of The Big Bang Theory. But a late scene reveals the voice over is a monologue he’s giving to a detective. Why he’d tell his life story there is beyond me. Maybe he’s filibustering. Cumberbatch delivers a clamped down performance so full of ticks and tricks that it’s scarcely believable as a real person. He’s a collection of biographical details never convincingly brought to life, perfect for a movie more interested in Big Moments and important monologues than building characters or crafting a gripping yarn.
But when the movie relaxes its need to explain the importance of its moment in history while following the build-a-biopic kit step by step, there’s some fine acting and some nervous tick-tock energy in its construction. Small moments of human interaction and wartime strategizing are often engaging. The actors are accomplished and, lead performance aside, have warm and lively likable energy. Knightley is the standout here, as a woman with a brilliant mind held back by a patriarchal system out to devalue her. When she shows up to apply for the job, she’s nearly turned away by a man who assumes she’s a lost secretary. Her sunny charm and intelligence give her scenes a heartbeat, much like Goode, Strong, and Dance (a good name for a Broadway law firm, by the way) breath sly grumpiness into stuffy writing.
Turing’s story is interesting, but the movie made out of it is inert, insisting on its own importance with a glossy, technically proficient surface that refuses to engage with the genuinely fascinating ideas inherent underneath. There are some pleasing elements, with a good cast working hard, craftspeople making fine period detail, and a typically excellent Alexandre Desplat score. It’s of minor interest for Anglophiles and WWII buffs, I suppose, but for starting with a tale so dramatic the end result is surprisingly empty.