“Politics really isn’t my specialty,” shrugs Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a naval commander (Charles Dance) in an early job interview scene in Morten Tyldum’s choppy biopic The Imitation Game. Yet no less than Winston Churchill would credit Turing as the main cause of the Allies’ victory over the Nazis. Turing wasn’t much for manners, either — or jokes, small talk, modesty, or hints.
Today, he might get tested for Asperger’s. In 1939, the year he asked the navy to hire him as a cryptographer, the diagnosis was simpler. “My mother says I’m a bit of an odd duck,” says Turing, before focusing his attention on the immediate problem: cracking Germany’s Enigma code before more good English chaps have to die.
The Enigma, a polyalphabetic rotocypher machine, had approximately 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions. At midnight each night, the Nazis reset the device, scrapping an entire day of Turing’s work. Solving the Enigma was so impossible it’d be bitterly funny — if only Turing knew how to hit a punchline. Instead, Cumberbatch squares his narrow shoulders, lowers his thin jaw, and gets to work, raising his head only to tell the rest of his team (Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, and a few others with fewer lines) that they’re a bunch of useless idiots.
The only person he respects is his hire, a suburban genius (Keira Knightley) forced to pass herself off as a secretary — and who deserves her own biopic. She attempts to smooth Turing’s edges by training him to be friendly, which proves to be its own near-impossible challenge. When his boss snidely tells him to take a problem up with Churchill, Turing actually does. “Popular in school, were you?” a co-worker jabs. Cumberbatch stares, processing the quip for sarcasm.
“Mother says I can be off-putting,” admits Turing. We never meet her, but the film again and again proves her right. Yet we see the strength in Turing’s personal weakness: To him, every human speaks in code. He found euphemisms and politeness befuddling — why can’t people simply say what they mean? Here, a colleague’s casual lunch invitation becomes an Abbott and Costello routine. Does he fancy a sandwich? Well, always, but does that mean he wants one now?
In flashbacks, schoolboys bully young Turing (Alex Lawther), coffining him under the classroom floorboards and dancing on his grave as he shrieks. His only childhood friend, Christopher (Jack Bannon), hands him a cryptography manual; decades later, in what for him translates to operatic sentimentality, Turing will name his Enigma code-breaking machine after his friend. Today, we call his machine the computer.
There was another, unrelated diagnosis that offered a second clue to Turing’s prickly personality: He was gay. Seven years after the Allies won the war, his own country would arrest him for gross indecency and force him to pick between jail or chemical castration. The man who saved the world wouldn’t get a government pardon for 62 years.
That’s how The Imitation Game ends: With a bitter gay-rights epilogue. But that’s not the story Tyldum is telling, though it’s unclear whether he knows that. Turing is unquestionably a modern martyr, but the film imprisons him as an asshole saint. He doesn’t fight or embrace his passions, he ignores them. Despite its brusque lead, The Imitation Game is too mannerly to ask Cumberbatch to act on Turing’s feelings. There’s no flirtation, kissing, nothing that even hints that Turing ever felt the jolt of sexual electricity that would prod him to, at 39, sleep with the 19-year-old hustler who burgled his house and got him arrested. (That, too, happens offscreen.)
Turing is kept tweedy and neutered, as closeted in celluloid as he was in real life. The revelation that the calculating logician couldn’t resist slumming it with thieves comes as a shock, the cheapest of dramatic effects. The plotting goes for surprise over struggle. Tyldum has robbed his own film of emotional depth — this Turing is as simple as Morse code. Rather than a complex human portrait, this is an assemblage of triumphs, tragedies and tics.
Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore hinge The Imitation Game on a misdirection: The investigator (Tom Goodman-Hill) who reveals Turing’s homosexuality initially believes he’s chasing down a spy. The screenwriters ask us to wonder the same, a bizarre and pointless feint — of course Turing wasn’t. This squanders running time that would have been better spent wading into the murky reasons that the government classified Turing’s Enigma work in the first place. Once the code was cracked, Turing’s team realized to their dismay that the Germans must never know England understood their transmissions. That meant allowing certain Nazi attacks to proceed as if the Brits were unaware. Statistically, enough good men had to die for the Allies to win the war, the kind of bloody pragmatism that a filmmaker could spend a whole movie exploring. Here, Tyldum offers one screaming fight between Turing and the brother of a veteran, plus a shot of wounded veterans, and then moves on.
“I am in control because I know things that you do not know,” clips Turing to the cops. But knowing isn’t everything. The Imitation Game gives us all the facts, yet, like its subject, doesn’t understand how to make us feel.
Directed by Morten Tyldum. Written by Graham Moore. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and Rory Kinnear.