“Are you paying attention?” a blank movie screen asks it audience in an austere British accent. “Good. This is going to go very quickly now. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.”
The voice belongs to Alan Turing (by way of Benedict Cumberbatch), the subject of The Imitation Game. The preeminent mathematician and number theorist is widely regarded the 'Father of Computer Science', but his other claim to fame – which this film dramatizes – is that it was he who cracked the Germans' mind-boggling Enigma Code during WWII, thus turning the tide in the Allies' favour.
Yes, the film is very English, like an episode of Masterpiece Theatre that's slightly too good to be relegated to the telly. Yes, the film is old fashioned, mounted with a classical absence of style that your grandmum would love. And yes, for any sniping about how flagrantly it's been groomed to win over Oscar voters, the film is indeed quite good.
As the picture fades in on the scene (a ransacked house in 1950s Manchester), Turing's voice continues his calm, authoritative ultimatum:
“You think that because you’re sitting where you are, and I am sitting where I am, that you are in control of what is about to happen. You’re mistaken. I am in control, because I know things that you do not know,” he says, as though defying us to comprehend what drives his unfathomable mind.
This tragic injustice could have made a robust feature film in its own right, but screenwriter Graham Moore – working from a biography by Andrew Hodges – is more interested in Turing as a man than as a martyr.
Turing is the true enigma to be solved at the centre of The Imitation Game, depicted with exacting control by Cumberbatch; A chilly, hopelessly aloof social outsider who can break any code except the one that ordinary people use to communicate every day. No opportunity is wasted to remind us of this devilish irony.
On the day Britain declares war, when the story begins in earnest, Turing is seemingly indifferent to the panic bubbling around him, while King George VI's famous speech crackles on the soundtrack (almost as if to subliminally remind Academy members of another British wartime film they so adored back in 2010).
It takes a woman, Joan Clarke (wittily interpreted by Keira Knightley), to teach Turing some humility and how to be more of a 'people person'. She knows he'll need his colleagues' help not only to build his machine, but to keep the impatient military pencil pushers from interfering.
In addition to crosscutting between his covert travails and his postwar legal crisis, Moore also incorporates Turing's pathos-eliciting backstory as a tormented youngster at boarding school. We see the seeds of his future being sown as his younger self (played with heartrending vulnerability by Alex Lawther) endures bullying and finds refuge in one true friend named Christopher, which he would later christen his machine at Bletchley.
The three concentric story lines unspool in calibrated unison, like the whizzing cogs and rotors of Turing's primitive computer. You could dismiss it as a structural gimmick, but it serves a purpose in keeping us from getting a true handle on this character until nearer the end, when we receive a tidy Citizen-Kane-esque inference about the root of his closed off personality. This payoff would certainly not have been felt if Turing's life had unfolded for us chronologically.
Moore's grasp of dramatic construct is sound enough, in fact, that his dialogue can be forgiven the occasional lapse in plausibility or cheesy platitude; “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is a line that aught to be delivered on a Ritz cracker.
The Imitation Game marks the English-language debut of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, and he acquits himself well, hitting all the dramatic beats with textbook precision. There are no discernible flaws in the way he and Moore have gone about telling this story – only limitations.
Moore and Tyldum don't even bother trying to demonstrate Turing's brilliance, or the basic mechanics of his confounding Christopher contraption, figuring that we needn't understand the man's genius to understand the man. A wise, safe choice if ever there was one, although just a tiny peek into his fascinating science would not have been unwelcome.
Still, the irony isn't lost on us when one of Turing's irritated colleagues quips, “To pull off this 'irascible genius routine', one actually has to be a genius.”
Obviously, the film is less keen on instructing us to revere an irascible genius, than it is on persuading us to empathize with a troubled misfit who feels just as deeply as anyone else. You'd have to be a machine not to agree that The Imitation Game meets this objective in fine form.
*** out of ****