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A favorite at Telluride and the People’s Choice winner at Toronto, The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the father of modern computing.

Back in Time

Cumberbatch, Knightley, and The Imitation Game are likely to win awards
Cumberbatch, Knightley, and The Imitation Game are likely to win awards

The Imitation Game spans most of Turing’s life, though the primary plot line is set during World War II when Turing and his team worked to build a machine that could decrypt messages sent using the Enigma machine — a sophisticated early encryption device used by the Nazis.

Flashbacks show that Turing was an awkward boy who learned how to put up with bullies. (“Mother says I’m an odd duck and she’s right.”)

A post-war timeline shows Turing, a homosexual, being investigated by a cop who wonders why Turing seems to have such a mysterious past. The Imitation Game doesn’t make a big deal about Turing’s sexuality — in fact he probably tried to downplay that side of his personality — but since homosexuality was a crime in 1950s Britain, it’s an integral part of the story, and it gives the cops something to tug on.

Director Morten Tyldum and editor William Goldenberg, working from a script by Graham Moore, boldly blend the timelines into an enigmatic jumble. More often than not I wanted to stick with the timeline I was engrossed in, rather than be pulled forward or backward. But it didn’t feel like a shortcoming; only a stylistic choice.

Social Graces

Cumberbatch adopts a few pieces of his BBC Sherlock persona. You can see the synapses firing when he delivers a line about logic, and you can tell that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Plus he’s got that striking, eerie face that is so magnetic. Unlike Sherlock, Turing has no sense of humor, which is quite funny in itself. As played by Cumberbatch, Turing lacks not only social graces, but social radar. At one point he asks “How is cryptography different from talking? People never say what they mean.”

Awkward as he is, Turing manages to pushes his way into a job at Bletchley Park where the British secret service are working on cracking Nazi codes using a captured Enigma machine. In the movie, Turing uses the assignment as an excuse to pursue his pet project, a machine that can solve any problem, not just the Enigma cryptography. Commander Deniston (Charles Dance), Turing’s military boss, seems to recognize that Turing isn’t necessarily in it for the loyalty, but for his own reasons. The two men don’t just dislike each other, they don’t even value what the other has to offer.

The Imitation Game softens this abrasive side of Turing by pairing him with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the smartest of Turing’s colleagues. As an unmarried woman in WWII Britain, she still answers to her parents, who largely disapprove of her doing men’s work at Bletchley Park. Joan is not only as smart as Turing, she has t he social skills to keep Turing from getting himself fired, keep herself working at Bletchley, and navigate the demanding gender roles of a single woman in the war industry.

Further Reading

The Imitation Game might have ended with Enigma solved, but it continues with a secondary episode of what to do with the decoded information. The film posits that Turing was also the master strategist who decided when and how to use the information. I suspect the movie gives too much credit to Turing on how the information was used (and perhaps even too little credit to men like Deniston — although that’s my own speculation). I do know that Turing and his team continued to help the war effort by apply statistical analyses to intelligence problems, as is in the film.

I’ll say this: the movie make me want to read a really good biography — perhaps the book by Andrew Hodges on which the film is based.