‘The Imitation Game’ is for real

Published 12:12 pm Saturday, February 7, 2015

by Chuck Lilley

Within the fields of mathematics and computing, Alan Turing is considered one of the 20th-century’s foremost thinkers. His seminal 1936 paper, “On Computable Numbers,” written at the tender age of 24, provides an early, logical basis for machines capable of carrying out immense calculations.

During World War II at Bletchley Park near Oxford, England, Turing’s renowned code-breaking skills saved countless Allied lives and significantly shortened the duration of the war. Incredibly, his immeasurable war-time contributions went largely unnoticed due to Great Britain’s Emergency Defense Act (all Bletchley Park records were destroyed or sealed). Turing’s homosexual lifestyle eventually lead to public humiliation, legal prosecution and inhumane persecution by the same government, which only a few years earlier had been in desperate need of his genius.

“The Imitation Game” is director Morten Tyldum’s first English-speaking film, and his well-crafted, historical drama captures the short-lived brilliance and tragic downfall of Alan Turing. Intermittent scenes of bomb-weary Londoners provide a believable back-drop to the enormity of deciphering Germany’s impenetrable secret coding machine, Enigma. The director does know a thing or two about building suspense, as his engrossing 2011 film “Headhunters” (currently available through Netflix, but with English subtitles) also demonstrates. His selection as “The Imitation Game’s” director and his Academy Award nomination in the Best Director category are evidence of his considerable talents.

A deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination has also been extended to screenwriter Graham Moore. “The Imitation Game’s” web of flashbacks cleverly remind audiences that decoding Enigma is a difficult puzzle.

Moore’s story is generally faithful to the arc of Andrew Hodge’s 1986 biography, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” but his facts are frequently exaggerated for narrative impact and anticipated commercial success. As examples: 1. Moore depicts Turing as an insensitive loner who becomes resented by colleagues, while Hodge’s novel describes a sensitive, socially awkward Team Leader, who is highly approachable and well-liked by co-workers; 2. Moore names Turing’s code-breaking computer Christopher, after a male boarding school love interest, whereas in real-life, Turing’s electro-mechanical creation was named Bombe, after an earlier Polish machine-design, Bomba.

British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (“War Horse,” “Sherlock,” “The Fifth Estate”) is the socially inept and naïve, adult Turing. “The Imitation Game” becomes his second consecutive Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award nomination (also for “The Fifth Estate”). While admittedly it is a strong theatrical performance, occasionally it is difficult to separate his pompous Sherlock Holmes (PBS’ “Sherlock”) from his condescending Turing.

During these moments, his performance seems contrived rather than natural, but perhaps the confusion is a testament to his acting skill.

Keira Knightly (“Anna Karenina,” “Atonement,” “Dangerous Method”) plays Turing’s ideal complement as the real-life Joan Clarke. Clarke is the rare combination at Bletchley — a female mathematician who is every bit Turing’s intellectual equal. However, her professional development is handicapped by the male-dominated society and her overriding loyalty toward protective parents. Knightly’s understated performance is worthy of her Best Actress in a Supporting Role nomination. British character actor Charles Dance as a British admiral, Mark Strong (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) as real-life spymaster Stewart Menzies, Rory Kinnear as a perceptive investigating detective and Matthew Goode as a suave, rival colleague of Turing’s provide well-acted, memorable performances.

Eight Academy Award nominations (including Best Original Musical Score) attest to “The Imitation Game” as a high-quality, entertaining film (rated PG-13). It is a heartbreaking story that provides some justice to a towering intellect and an unsung World War II hero for the injustice of a socially antiquated British legal act (later repealed) that made homosexuality a crime. Queen Elizabeth II issued Alan Turing a belated royal pardon in 2014.

Chuck’s rating: Four thumbs up (out of five)