Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Morten Tyldum
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Beard, James Cairncross, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Steven Waddington, James Northcote, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon.
The Imitation Game is a gripping WWII drama about a group of British boffins brought together by the War Office to try and crack the German’s unbreakable Enigma code, a sophisticated encryption machine they used to send all their top level messages and convey troop movements. The code was changed at midnight every day, giving the British just 24 hours to try and crack the millions of possibilities before it reset. We’ve visited this territory before with Michael Apted’s fictional 2001 thriller Enigma, which starred Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet.
The focus of this film from first time writer Graham Moore is on genius mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing (played here by tv’s Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch, who is in no less than three films screening over the Christmas period), who headed up the top secret project at Bletchley Park, a former radio parts factory.
In a stroke of insight he believed that only a machine could outwit another machine. Thus he created one of the first working computers and cracked the German code, thus shortening the war by several years and saving millions of lives.
Turing was undoubtedly a genius, but he was also aloof and arrogant with little people skills, and there is also a suggestion that he suffered from a form of Asperger’s. He was part of a team of linguists and mathematicians, but he seemed to prefer to work alone. But he was also gay at a time when homosexuality was still considered illegal, and he had to hide his secret for much of his life. After the war he was arrested on charges of gross indecency. Because his work during the war was considered top secret and all records destroyed or buried, he was treated as a common criminal, disgraced and eventually committed suicide, which lends a poignant and melancholy note to the material. Sixty years later he was posthumously pardoned by the Queen, and his reputation has been partially restored.
Much of the film unfolds in a series of extended flashbacks. The framing device here sees Turning being interrogated by detective Nock (played by Skyfall‘s Rory Kinnear) following a break-in at his house in 1951. But Nock grows suspicious of Turing when a cursory search fails to turn up any background information on him, and he begins to suspect that he may in fact have been a Russian spy. As he uncovers Turing’s secret though he becomes conflicted about the best course of action to take in what has become something of a politically sensitive investigation. But this largely fictitious device seems a misstep that distracts from the gripping central drama of Turing’s efforts to break the enigma code.
Moore has adapted Alan Hodges’ novel Alan Turing: The Enigma, and gives us some insight into this forgotten hero who turned the tide of the war. We also get some glimpses into his tortured childhood when he was remorselessly bullied at school, which helped shape his prickly nature. The script takes a few liberties though, as it was not Turing and his boffins who made the decision on which targets to sacrifice and which to save so as not to alert the Germans that their precious code had been broken. That unenviable task actually fell to Churchill and the War Office.
Cumberbatch is terrific here as the conflicted, socially awkward and emotionally distant Turing, himself something of an enigma, and his superb and nuanced performance captures many of his tics, neuroses, his uncomfortable stammer and prickly mannerisms. There is solid support from Keira Knightley, who plays Joan Clarke, a fellow code cracker who becomes a close confidante and possible romantic interest for Turing, and she brings a sassy quality to her performance.
Matthew Goode is also good as Hugh Alexander, a fellow cryptographer who is initially jealous of Turing. Charles Dance brings his usual gravitas and imperious manner to his role as Dennison, the officer in charge of the project, while Mark Strong lends his usual sense of menace to his role as Menzies, the spymaster with an interest in cracking the code.
The Imitation Game is the first English language film from Swedish director Morten Tyldum (the dark and twisted Scandinavian crime thriller Headhunters, etc) and he handles the material with assurance, and draws solid performances from his ensemble cast.
The Imitation Game is a superb drama with a strong emotional core, and is certainly one of the better films released over the holiday season. Technical credits are all superb, as Maria Djurkovic’s production design and the period detail lend authenticity to the drama. Alexandre Desplat’s subtle score enhances the almost unbearable tension of this dramatic race against time.