Biography Drama

A Film Review Deciphered: The Imitation Game

December 12, 2014Ben MK

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Confessions of a beautiful mind...

Considered to be the father of modern computing, Alan Turing has had the details of his life and work find their way into the pages of many a textbook over the years. As it turns out, however, academic scholars were only familiar with half the story. For in 1983, a secret chapter of Turing's life came to light, as revealed in author Andrew Hodges' "Alan Turing: The Enigma". It's a story that's explored in director Mort Tyldum's The Imitation Game, which chronicles Turing's exploits as a World War II codebreaker for MI6, as well as the persecution he faced due to his sexual orientation.


Alternating between three time periods, The Imitation Game takes a somewhat nonlinear approach to painting a compelling portrait of a tortured genius whom few people knew and even fewer truly understood — as a teenager, a young man and three years before his tragic and untimely death.

The majority of the film takes place between 1939 and 1941, during the early years of World War II, where a 27-year-old Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes part of an elite group of cryptanalysts tapped by MI6 to break the German Enigma code. Used by the Third Reich to transmit encrypted messages to the front lines, Enigma is all but impenetrable; for with 159,000,000 trillion different ways to decode each message, it would take 20 million years to try all possibilities. Yet, Turing and his motley crew of compatriots, chess prodigy Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), have exactly 16 hours each day to do so; otherwise, they must start from scratch once the clock strikes midnight.

Seeing nothing but futility in their current approach, Turing convinces his by-the-book superiors, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), to allow him to build a machine — destined to become the precursor to the computer — that might aid them in their impossible task. Ultimately, Turing's invention — which he affectionately nicknames "Christopher", after a boy who befriended him when he was 16 — would result in their success, expediting the Allies' victory and saving an estimated 14 million lives. However, it still isn't enough to save Turing from being persecuted by his own government, when a police investigation in 1951 leads to the revelation of his homosexuality. Subjected to the indignity of chemical castration, he takes his own life three years later.

Although you could technically call the film a World War II drama, shots of the front lines and of the war's impact on England are limited. There are a handful of scenes depicting soldiers, decimated warships and Londonites huddled together in the cramped confines of underground bomb shelters. But, by and large, Tyldum holds the narrative focus firmly on Cumberbatch.

At first glance, it may appear that the actor is reprising the same type of role he played in The Fifth Estate — an aloof, arrogant and irascible genius who doesn't quite fit in with the status quo and who doesn't navigate well among social circles. And while that's true to a point, we quickly learn that there are many more facets to his character.

Turing's relationship with Knightley's character, Joan, is what defines the film — what gives it its heart. For in her he finds a certain kinship, as she, being a female in a male-dominated society, knows full well what it's like to be prejudiced against. Otherwise, for better or worse, the film is very much in the vein of traditional biopics. What sets it apart from other period dramas, however, is Cumberbatch's impressively nuanced take on the part, which peels back the layers of Turing's persona to reveal complex emotions of anguish, compassion and humility.

The Bottom Line For those who may only be familiar with Alan Turing's academic achievements, The Imitation Game is an eye-opening look at the brilliance of a man who helped save countless lives, yet whose own life was ultimately treated with utter disregard by the very government he served so dutifully. But even for those who may already know the story, the film is well worth the two hours it asks of moviegoers, as it leaves its distinct mark on viewers by evoking not only heartbreak, but also humor and inspiration.  Ben Mk

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 10th, 2014.

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