“The Imitation Game” tells the story of Alan Turing, the long-unsung British mathematician, cryptanalyst, computer-science pioneer and square peg who played an essential role in the breaking of Nazi Germany’s Enigma code. About a decade later, he was horrifically prosecuted by the British government for his homosexuality. Yes, this is another prestige drama that glosses over the darker aspects of its protagonist’s struggles and replaces them with agreeability. But boosted by a fascinating central character and captivating lead performance, the film has thrills and personality.
Directed by Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) and written by Graham Moore (adapting a book by Andrew Hodges), this mix of fact and fabrication stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, a socially inept, intellectually extraordinary mathematician hired to join a government team tasked with cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code. To achieve this would give the Allies crucial information about Nazi military plans – and it indeed helped the Allies win the war.
Arrogant and inconsiderate, Turing irks his bosses and teammates. The latter include chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), the team’s leader, until Turing, appointed by Churchill, takes over.
Turing revamps the group, bringing aboard mathematician and crossword wizard Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Joan becomes a soul mate to Turing and, briefly, his fiancee.
In their Bletchley Park digs, the code breakers decipher the code. Their triumph lands them in top-secret, shadowy terrain: To keep Germany ignorant of the breakthrough, they must let some Nazi-planned attacks proceed.
The filmmakers complement this material with flashbacks of Turing’s childhood. A bullied young Turing (Alex Lawther) finds relief in time spent with his classmate (and crush) Christopher Morcon, who introduces him to cryptanalysis.
Additional material transpires in the 1950s, when, in scenes used as a framing device, a police inspector (Rory Kinnear), wrongly suspecting Turing of espionage, questions Turing about his wartime work.
The 1950s scenes also involve the arrest and prosecution of Turing for homosexual activity. Convicted on gross-indecency charges, he chooses chemical castration over jail. His death, in 1954 (he was 41), was ruled a suicide.
The film probably contains less hardcore science than “Big Hero 6” and, frustratingly, no gay sex at all. Homosexuality, after all, was a part of who Turing was; one of his relationships was what led to his arrest.
The filmmakers treat Knightley’s glamorous-looking Joan, Turing’s brief platonic fiancee, as a love interest instead of showcasing her purportedly great mind. The movie also suffers from a trite handling of the eureka moment and hokey lines.
But while safe and uneven, the film ultimately comes through as a biodrama, thriller and salute to science nerds.
Tyldum weaves the three time periods efficiently and includes choice moments involving artificial intelligence and what Turing calls the “bloody calculus” of war.
Cumberbatch is terrific. His Turing is an intense, intellectual force and stirring mix of remote, vulnerable and present.
The Imitation Game
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong
Written by Graham Moore
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Running time 1 hour, 54 minutes