'The Imitation Game' review: turning Alan Turing's life into a code-breaking thriller

Sit back and watch Benedict Cumberbatch play another genius

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We all want to know what it’s like to be a genius. That seems to be the big appeal of going to see a movie about one, and there happens to be two this month alone — both focusing on hugely important British scientists. The latest is about Alan Turing, a mathematician who was among the early pioneers of computer science. That might not sound all that glamorous, but his life was actually quite dramatic: he’s one of the most important World War II codebreakers and was later persecuted for his sexuality to a tragic end.

Turing’s life during World War II is the subject of The Imitation Game, a new movie from director Morten Tyldum. Tyldum is a relatively unknown director from Norway, and this is his first film in English. He frames The Imitation Game as a thriller, presenting the story of Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, as he attempts to crack Germany's Enigma machine — an encryption device that’s preventing the Allies from reading any Nazi messages. It’s a story of espionage, just with math instead of guns.

But while the film broadly covers the process of breaking Enigma, the movie’s heart is really Turing himself. The film has two central mysteries — both expressed quite clearly to the viewer — and they’re exactly what you’d want to know walking into the theater: who is Alan Turing, and how did he crack one of the greatest encryption devices ever made?

On its own, the process of cracking Enigma is not very compelling. It’s a matter of engineering and drafting plans for machinery — abstract processes that don’t make for an engaging story. Instead, The Imitation Game turns to Turing himself to keep the process interesting. For one, Turing’s a genius, and it’s fascinating to learn how he operates. But it turns out that Turing is a pretty unusual guy, too. He’s removed and unsociable. He’s smarter than everyone else in the room, but sometimes, he just totally doesn’t get it. The Imitation Game lets us watch as Turing and those around him come to deal with how incapable he is of balancing his genius and his inability to get along with others. Ultimately, the challenge of cracking Enigma comes down to whether Turing can open up to his colleagues to get the help and fortitude that he needs, and that’s a conflict worth watching.

Turing himself is framed as the biggest puzzle of the movie

There’s also another defining struggle of Turing’s life: that he is a gay man at a time when gay sex is illegal. This is presented as an underlying challenge for Turing in this film — something that he is not always contending with, but is often present — and it is naturally a critical aspect of Turing to explore given his conviction for "indecency" later in life.

The Imitation Game explores this in a few different ways. The first is in Turing’s growing friendship with Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, a fellow codebreaker who is among the few people that understand him. She’s able to do this because she, too, is often the odd one out: a woman in a man’s world, and someone who is doing far more incredible things than anyone expected of her. On her own, Clarke provides a wonderful, lighthearted aside to Turing’s seriousness. (She also throws down a man or two who’s too dumb to realize how smart she is, which is pretty great.) But mostly, she’s there to help us see into Turing, giving him the opportunity to talk to someone on his level. His interest in her is also a constant pressure on him, slowly forcing Turing to contend with the fact that he does not truly want to be with her romantically.

The movie also explores Turing and his struggles as a gay man by drawing comparisons between him and the machine that he’s building to crack Engima, neither being something that anyone else can fully understand. It’s funny, of course, because Turing’s most iconic idea is a test that asks you to tell the difference between a machine and a human. And, at least in the world of this film, Turing would perhaps be accidentally judged as a machine because he’s so strange. It ultimately makes for a weak and muddled metaphor, the point being that he’s actually human — just one a bit different than everyone else. The film uses that metaphor to espouse some feel-good sentiments that don’t play as well as it would like, but it’s still a clever enough way of giving insight into Turing.

imitation game stills

The machine metaphor keeps going. In Turing’s mind, the war is about machines. Whenever the film cuts away from England to show the war, all we see are tanks, battleships, and submarines. It’s Turing’s machine versus theirs, and his is perhaps the most important of the war. Because of that, we see Turing grow obsessed with his own machine — it is the one thing he allows himself to grow an attachment to during his adult life. Only when something comes between the two of them does Turing really start to break down.

It’s in those moments of crisis that the film shines. Cumberbatch plays Turing as calm and poised, but it’s here that he’s suddenly free to give us his all. Otherwise, Cumberbatch presents Turing as the mystery that he’s supposed to be, at least for the sake of this film. He walks a fine line between genius and oddball, between commanding a conversation and blustering his way through one. Cumberbatch never lets us know what side Turing actually lands on, and that’s part of the fun.

The film is a thriller, but it all comes down to letting Cumberbatch perform

Beyond that, the movie builds the intricate plot of a thriller all around Cumberbatch’s character. It’s no accident that this movie has the word "game" in its title — though we only sort of see the Imitation Game, a precursor to the Turing Test, played during the movie, just about everything else in it is framed as a puzzle or a game. Cracking Enigma is laid out with specific rules, and there are ticking clocks everywhere. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before — when one character asks for a six-month extension, you just know that he's going to hear back something along the lines of a stern "you've got six weeks" — but they all coalesce to form an ongoing sense of tension.

A lesser film would probably go so far as to explain that Turing is the true enigma that needs to be cracked. Fortunately, while that may be this film’s conceit, it is not so blunt with how it draws his character. Cumberbatch is thrown into the middle of a functional thriller and given the leeway to show us Turing and how a genius and a troubled man works. It’s pretty great to watch him do just that.

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