“Pay attention,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing demands at the end of the long monologue which opens The Imitation Game, though it’s difficult to tell why. For one, the threatening intonation sounds like leftover scenery chewing from his Khan in last year’s Star Trek, and though The Imitation Game does demonstrate what a man of the future the real Alan Turing was, the portrait crafted by the film is of a much gentler man. More importantly, it’s odd the movie would even request such an attentive audience, considering The Imitation Game cares little for any details it doesn’t spell out for you in capital letters.
Rotors of an encryption machine transition to the wheels moving Nazi tank treads, and a snubbed cigarette replaces a U-boat torpedo the moment before impact. A zinger-heavy script makes dialogue sound as though every punchline should be accompanied by the ding of a typewriter carriage resetting. Even the obligatory end-of-film wall of text describing Turing’s accomplishments deals in broad strokes, citing claims about his work during WWII to groups like “scientists,” and “historians,” instead of actual people. For a film all about uncovering secret messages, The Imitation Game sure loves to broadcast things in plain English.
Yet, it’s because The Imitation Game leans so heavily on theatrics that it manages to overcome many of the usual pitfalls of the biopic genre. A synoptic view of Turing’s life would make it seem destined for a hagiographic snooze if translated to film. Good luck finding something sexy or exciting about a British logician who spent the war trying to crack Nazi encoded messages by futzing all day with computers. More challenging is how you would put a happy spin on the life of a man that ended in the kind of tragedy that doesn’t create martyrs, or a symbol of progress, but a victim of gross betrayal. The Imitation Game solves these problems nimbly, with the help of a terrific cast and some fudged facts. More importantly, it still manages to paint a complex picture of its subject, which, as it turns out, isn’t so much Turing, as it is the age of information he would give birth to.
Arrogant contempt incarnate, Cumberbatch would have license to tear through Graham Moore’s screenplay if it lent itself more readily to making Turing out to be the kind of super-genius sociopath Cumberbatch is so often cast as. Forget the self-righteous fury of Julian Assange and the narcissism of Sherlock Holmes; Cumberbatch’s Turing is about as harmless as Sheldon Cooper. He’s a brilliant mind, but the genius that engenders enmity -whether from classmates in flashbacks to the ‘20s, or from fellow cryptanalysts trying to break Germany’s Enigma machine during the war- also provides him the self-awareness to know that human interaction is required to navigate life. It’s a burden only compounded by his homosexuality, which was still considered a crime in the Britain of 1951 the film opens with. Like the easy to intercept, but hard to read messages Turing spent his life solving, the best option for keeping his own secret was to hide in plain sight.
The Imitation Game has all the makings of a stately history lesson on both Turing’s contribution to the war effort, and the hardships he faced when his sexuality came to light. The film tackles both issues, but is anything but stately in its execution. There’s great levity to the material set during the war, even as director Morten Tyldum makes deliberate, but effective efforts to remind you of those lives lost and still at stake while Turing and his team in Bletchley Park toil to solve the seemingly unsolvable Enigma problem. A score of fairy tale lightness flecked with prescient electronic undertones (courtesy Alexandre Desplat) helps make moments that sound ridiculous on paper, like a breakthrough born out of pub flirting, absolutely sing on screen.
Much of the film’s success is owed to the supporting cast. They’re all too famous or good-looking to really buy as officers or professors, but it’s all in keeping with The Imitation Game’s punched up version of history. Mark Strong lurks in the shadows as the prickly head of British intelligence, Charles Dance has a menacing ball as the Commander overseeing Turing’s unit, and as the younger Turing, Alex Lawther, does a mighty fine Cumberbatch impression. It’s Keira Knightley who makes the biggest impression, though, as Turing’s mentee and eventual fiancée Joan Clarke. Most historical dramas struggle to weave in social elements of the era outside the scope of their central figure, but as a fellow outsider, Clarke’s relationship to Turing allows The Imitation Game to work in commentary on women’s rights through her as well as it does gay persecution through Turing.
Despite the showy fun The Imitation Game has with its generally formulaic approach to Turing’s life, it gains surprising poignancy once it moves into a dour final third. Breaking the Enigma code winds up being a small part of Turing’s story, as it’s the machinery and statistical analysis he introduces to Britain’s military that has the lasting legacy. Rather than being a gimmick, the three separate timelines elegantly pull together by film’s end, and the resulting image of Turing and his work makes for a fascinatingly conflicted one.
The brisk playfulness that keeps The Imitation Game humming through most of its run winds up being somewhat counterintuitive to the gravity of the statements it tries to make at the end, but unlike the rest of the film, those statements are left to be read between the lines. Though The Imitation Game follows the familiar steps of the tortured genius playbook (at least three times, Turing is reminded by someone he’s not God), it makes for a better biopic than most on the strength of its cast, script, and direction. It doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of storytelling that’s as generally informative as it is thoroughly entertaining, and proves that some subjects are better made a game of than slavishly imitated.