Nothing is too heavily encrypted in “The Imitation Game,” a veddy British biopic of prodigal mathematician and WWII codebreaker Alan Turing, rendered in such unerringly tasteful, “Masterpiece Theatre”-ish fashion that every one of Turing’s professional triumphs and personal tragedies arrives right on schedule and with nary a hair out of place. More than once during the accomplished (but not particularly distinctive) English-language debut for Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), you can catch the ghost of the late Richard Attenborough nodding approvingly over the decorous proceedings. And yet so innately compelling is Turing’s story — to say nothing of Benedict Cumberbatch’s masterful performance — it’s hard not to get caught up in this well-told tale and its skillful manipulations. Likely to prove more popular with general audiences than highbrow critics, this unapologetically old-fashioned prestige picture (the first of the season’s dueling studies of brilliant but tragic English academics, to be followed soon by “The Theory of Everything”) looks and feels like another awards-season thoroughbred for U.S. distrib Harvey Weinstein.
By any measure, “The Imitation Game” is a marked improvement over Michael Apted’s 2001 “Enigma,” a dreary, dramatically inert potboiler starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet as fictionalized versions of Turing and fellow cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, who was also briefly Turing’s fiancee — until he confessed his homosexuality and broke off the engagement. In adapting Andrew Hodges’ Turing biography, “The Enigma,” first-time screenwriter Graham Moore seems to have made a close study of Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network,” which “The Imitation Game” resembles in its flashback structure, many scenes of geeky young men huddled over complex algorithms, and its central conception of Turing as an Aspergian outcast who makes up in haughty, condescending attitude what he lacks in basic social graces. That’s not a bad model to work from, though Moore has also picked up a few less desirable habits from those screenwriting seminars that encourage writers to do things like having multiple characters articulate the theme of the movie in a nifty, self-empowering mantra: “Sometimes it’s the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects,” which becomes “The Imitation Game’s” version of “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
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Of course, in the England of Turing’s time, with the Victorian-era Labouchere Amendment still in effect, being gay meant having to say you were sorry all the time — provided you were unlucky enough to be caught in the act, as Turing was in 1952, arrested on charges of “gross indecency” stemming from his affair with a 19-year-old male drifter. (Two years later, Turing killed himself at the age of 41.) “The Imitation Game” begins there, using Turing’s interrogation by a sympathetic policeman (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device that offers a practical explanation for the character’s running voiceover narration. We then jump back to 1939 and the early days of England’s entrance into the war, where the 27-year-old Turing applies for a top-secret post working on the decryption of the seemingly “unbreakable” German cipher machine called Enigma, used by the Nazis to encode all military radio transmissions from ordinary weather reports to valuable tactical maneuvers.
Turing lands the gig at Bletchley Park, home to the Government Code and Cypher School, where he plays poorly with others, alienating his fellow codebreakers and clashing repeatedly with his bosses (a wonderfully starchy Charles Dance as a seen-it-all Royal Navy Commander and Mark Strong as a cagey MI6 agent). When Turing chafes at being second banana to the Enigma team’s de facto leader — suave national chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode in a variation on Andrew Garfield’s “Social Network” character) — he appeals his case directly to Winston Churchill, who responds (in the very next scene) by putting Turing in charge. And just about everything in the first half of “The Imitation Game” has a similar, overly tidy feel of real life reduced to anecdotal zingers. When Turing holds a kind of open audition to recruit new team members, you know that Clarke (Keira Knightley), the lone woman in the group, won’t just turn out to be as good as the men, but even better. And when Turing finally has his Enigma-busting eureka moment, it’s due to one of those random happy accidents, like the apocryphal apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head.
Tyldum and Moore may not be the most inspired of craftsmen, but they know how to keep things moving at a brisk pace, and they manage to cram an impressive amount of information and detail into less than two hours of screen time. “The Imitation Game” is especially good at maintaining a constant, queasy sense of the war (seen in snippets of newsreels and a couple of deftly stylized reenactments), the British body count rising ever higher the longer it takes our intrepid pencil pushers to solve their cryptographic puzzle. It’s enervating work, complicated by the Enigma machine’s exponential millions of possible settings, which the Germans change every 24 hours, effectively causing Turing and company to have to start over again from scratch. Or rather, everyone but Turing, who, having resolved that only another machine can possibly solve the Enigma riddle, sets to building a room-sized proto-computer named Christopher (after a schoolboy protector and crush, seen in a further set of flashbacks).
It’s a familiar portrayal of the rogue genius who pushes further into the breach no matter the incomprehension and contempt of his smaller-brained contemporaries, but Cumberbatch invests himself so fully in the role that the scenes transcend their attendant cliches. His Turing is a marvel to watch, comically aloof when confronted with as mundane a task as ordering lunch, but seething with the mad intensity of a zealot whenever anything risks impeding his work, and finally heartbreaking in his inability to cope with the cruel realities of the world outside Bletchley Park.
Ultimately, “The Imitation Game” doesn’t need its banal catchphrases to show us that Turing is a savant who sees and feels the world differently than most other people, because it’s there in every inch of Cumberbatch’s performance — in the rigid way he carries himself (as if he were two sizes too big for his own body), and in his pained realization that he can never fully decipher the code of ordinary human interaction. And Knightley — who’s reliably more interesting as misfits and weirdos (like her Sabina Spielrein in “A Dangerous Method”) than as virtuous ingenues — proves every bit his equal as the brilliant Clarke, another societal square peg blithely unconcerned by the era’s demeaning conception of womanly ability.
Turing breaks Enigma a little over halfway into “The Imitation Game,” and it’s only then that the movie blooms into something darker, more troubled and altogether more interesting. It becomes about how, having made arguably the greatest breakthrough of the war, Turing and company must now keep it hidden, not just from the public, but from most corridors of government and military power, lest anyone inadvertently tip off the Germans that their secret transmissions are no longer secret. So Turing’s team now finds itself charged with determining the maximum amount of intercepted information that can be acted upon without giving the game away — a “blood-soaked calculus,” per Turing, that often means sacrificing some British lives in the name of saving others.
Even then, “The Imitation Game” never quite trumps the sense that Turing’s life was a messier, more complex enterprise than we’re allowed to see here. But the movie is undeniably strong in its sense of a bright light burned out too soon, and the often undignified fate of those who dare to chafe at society’s established norms.
Top-flight craft contributions add to the overall classy feel, particularly the lush, contrasty 35mm lensing of Spanish cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Impossible”), the cluttered desks and primitive computing machines of production designer Maria Djurkovic (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), and a piano-and-strings score by Alexandre Desplat that catches something of Turing’s anxious, uneasy spirit.