‘Imitation Game’: Tragic tale of codebreaker

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Alan Turing is widely regarded as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. “The Imitation Game” focuses on the role of Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a codebreaker during World War II.

The Nazis used am array of Enigma machines to encipher and decipher over 3,000 messages a day. British military intelligence created Ultra, an operation designed to crack the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code. Prime Minister Winston Churchill told King George VI that, “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.”

As a leading member of the Ultra team, you might assume that after the war concluded, Turing was hailed as a hero in his native country. However, long after the Nazis were crushed, Ultra continued to be a carefully-guarded government secret. The contributions of Turing and his colleagues remained unknown.

Not only Turing received no public recognition for his contributions, he became a victim of Britain’s harsh, Victorian-era Labouchere Amendment. The vaguely worded statute criminalized so-called gross indecency, but failed to define it. When Turing’s homosexuality was exposed, he was prosecuted and convicted for it. Given the choice of two years in prison or chemical castration, Turing  elected the latter option. Turing subsequently ingested cyanide and committed suicide at 41.

Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, “The Enigma,” was capably adapted by first-time screenwriter Graham Moore. Instead of using a linear timeline, he jumps between three distinct periods in Turing’s life; his childhood; his days as a wartime cryptographer; and the post-war era, during which he was subjected to government harassment.

“The Imitation Game” begins in 1954, when a Manchester police detective, Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) arrives at Turing’s home to investigate a report of what initially appears to be a garden variety burglary. We are introduced to Turing and immediately exposed to his arrogance. During an interrogation, he addresses the policeman with condescending disdain, “Pay close attention, I will not pause, I will not repeat myself.”

The film then reverts to World War II. During it, England had set up the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchely Park. Under the supervision of Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance), a team of cryptanalysts, mathematicians, linguists, and chess experts have been tasked with cracking the Enigma Code.

A screen capture from the trailer to "The Imitation Game" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM

A screen capture from the trailer to “The Imitation Game” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM

Turing, then 27, shows up at Bletchley Park, offering to volunteer his services. Initially, Commander Denniston is put off by Turing’s haughty manner and spurns his offer. When Turing reveals that he is already aware of the Enigma machine, Commander Denniston begrudgingly relents.

Turing joins a small elite team, which has suave chess champion, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), as its informal leader. Predictably, Turing alienates Alexander and his other members of the code-breaking team. Later, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) becomes the first female to join the group and has to battle against gender stereotypes. She is briefly affianced to Turing until he reveals his sexual orientation. Major General Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) is a cagey intelligence officer. He recognizes that Turing is a valuable asset and that his foibles should be tolerated.

Flashbacks to a young Turing (Alex Lawther) depict him as a miserable outcast at the Sherborne School. He has only one chum and is left friendless, when the boy dies of bovine tuberculosis.

In the lead role, Benedict Cumberbatch has a daunting task. He has to somehow make his prickly character sympathetic to the audience. Cumberbatch does a laudable job of achieving this objective. We come to appreciate how Turing’s conspicuous intelligence made him the object of derision and left him deeply embittered. Attesting to his versatility, Cumberbatch has now convincingly played geniuses in this film and on television’s “Sherlock,” as well as a mentally enfeebled character in “August: Osage County.”

Keira Knightley’s recent career has been plagued by clunkers like “Begin Again” and “Laggies.” This film provides her with her best role since “Bend It Like Beckham,” back in 2002. The rest of supporting cast, particularly Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong, enrich the film.

This is the fourth feature and first English language film directed by Norwegian, Morten Tyldum . Previously, he helmed “Headhunters,” a brilliantly-executed contemporary crime drama, which was full of engaging characters and unexpected plot twists. It became the biggest grossing film in Norway’s history. Here, Tyldum does an excellent job of maintaining the tension and pacing of the film. Given Tyldum’s foreign background, he is surprisingly effective at capturing the veddy British sensibility of the film.

Spanish cinematographer, Oscar Faura, confers a lush look to “The Imitation Game.” Location shooting at Bletchley Park and the site of Turing’s former school enhance the film’s verisimilitude. The film’s sense of time and place is enhanced by period fashions from costume designer, Sammy Sheldon. Production designer, Maria Djurkovic, has acknowledged taking some liberties to enhance cinematicity. According to her, the film’s electromechanical decoding machine is larger and more open than the one actually designed by Turing. However, this does not substantially detract from the film’s carefully earned authenticity. Alexandre Desplat recorded his resonant score with the London Symphony Orchestra.

“The Imitation Game” is a tragic tale of a man, who became a victim of government prosecution under an archaic, homophobic statute. It is of some small consolation that on December 23, 2013, Turing received a posthumous Royal Pardon.

“The Imitation Game” *** ½  PG-13 (for some sexual references, mature thematic material, and historical smoking) 114 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.



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