A low-key, yet symbolically striking scene occurs late in The Imitation Game, when mathematician and Enigma code breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) finishes a solo run and rests on his knees in a field. While catching his breath, he calmly watches a glorious sunset. By this point in the film, Turing indeed has run the most important race of his professional career—assisting MI6 during World War II by successfully building a machine to break the Nazis’ daily-changing communication code. As he has been for most of his life, however, Turing in this scene is alone. He faces a return to “normal” society after being ensconced at Bletchley Park with co-workers who gradually became friends. In many ways, his personal triumph at breaking Enigma and gaining some measure of social acceptance is the high point of his life. As the sun slowly sets in heartbreaking beauty, Turing—as well as the audience—wonders what will come next.
Wartime encourages and fuels secrets, and Turing not only has to keep quiet about his government work but the secrets he uncovers about his colleagues—and the ones they learn about him. Turing is a man who often must hide who he is, what he feels, or what he has done, either professionally or personally. As depicted in this film, gaining knowledge is only part of surviving a war. Knowing when to share information, and how much, and with whom, is the key to winning. Turing and his team of brilliant analysts learn this truth at devastating personal costs.
The Imitation Game, on the surface, is a biopic determined to make 21st century audiences aware of Alan Turing’s brilliance and his significant contributions not only in helping the Allies win the war but in leading to our computer-reliant society. It also is an apology to the man who, in 1954, died at the far-too-young age of 41, as a result of Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality. (Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned Turing last year for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality.) Such themes might seem too serious or tragic for a film hoping to become Oscar’s Best Picture, but the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch in particular, Keira Knightley (as Joan Clarke), and Mark Strong (as Stewart Menzies) make the film more personal and empowering.
This is Cumberbatch’s star turn. Critics who compare his role as Turing with those as Sherlock Holmes or Stephen Hawking miss the point. Yes, Turing is a genius with some serious socialization issues, but audiences will not see Sherlock or Hawking in this performance. When Turing is out of his element in conversation, his expression washes out and his eyes dim. When he is presented with a new puzzle, his eyes come alive, as if the man dully trying to navigate the banalities of common conversation suddenly awakens and knows just what to say. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is surprisingly intimate; emotion leaks from Turing’s eyes, and the stiff upper lip developed as a child’s defense mechanism wobbles. The actor physically inhabits the role, with Turing’s slightly hunched gait and downward gaze, runner’s speed and measured breath, or tremored hand in the scene that surely will gain Cumberbatch many acting nominations in the coming months.
Turing is a difficult man to understand, much less like. He prefers to work alone and looks with disdain at his colleagues [mostly depicted as “types,” such as the dashing Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode)]. For all the drama, the film is surprisingly funny because of Turing’s social faux pas. When his colleagues tell him they are going to lunch, Turing fails to acknowledge the group’s spokesman. After telling Turing for the third time they are leaving, he finally realizes that Turing does not understand he is being asked to go along. Later, when Turing follows Joan Clarke’s suggestion that he try to make friends with his co-workers, he proves he is the world’s worst joke teller. Cumberbatch plays Turing appropriately straight faced, but his performance explains, never mocks, Turing’s social unease.
Knightley and Strong assist greatly with the film’s lighter moments. Both have a deft comedic touch. Knightley is particularly good at showing that Clarke, like Turing, is an outsider, but one who knows how to play the game to succeed as much as a middle-class woman in the 1940s was allowed. This performance is one of Knightley’s strongest in quite a while, and she and Cumberbatch work well together. Clarke and Turing have what Knightley termed a “meeting of the minds”—they understand each other, and Clarke tutors Turing on how to understand or be understood by everyone else. Strong, as Turing’s MI6 “handler,” does not even need dialogue. He can convey wry humor by lifting an eyebrow, and his character slyly manipulates the intelligentsia at Bletchley Park, sometimes, it seems, for his own amusement.
Biographer Andrew Hodges expressed dismay during filming that he feared Turing’s and Clarke’s relationship would become a standard movie love story. Rest assured, it is not. The film does deal with discrimination because of gender or sexual orientation, but its depictions of love do not require sex scenes. I did find details from Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma useful, particularly in the flashbacks—narrated by Cumberbatch—to young Turing’s unhappy school days. Alex Lauther, playing young Alan, does not mimic Cumberbatch’s mannerisms or delivery, but the parallelism between the performances enhances the connection between the flashbacks and the main story. Audiences can believe that Lauther’s bullied public schoolboy grows up to become Cumberbatch’s under-duress stutterer who names his finest mechanical creation for his dearest school-days friend.
“You picked a good one,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey assured The Imitation Game’s second-screening audience (who, even with tickets, waited hours outside in a queue wrapping around blocks in order to get a good seat). A few minutes later, director Morten Tyldum described the way the cast had come together as a family to make this film, but he explained that now it is not just his film, or the cast’s—“It is now yours.”
The Imitation Game is a fine gift but not a perfect film. It successfully introduces more people to the amazing, and victimized, Alan Turing. It is an intriguing history that intercuts wartime newsreel footage with the actors’ scenes. One critic dubbed it “your grandpa’s new favorite movie,” and many filmgoers may not immediately gravitate to a story about World War II code breakers. It has an uplifting theme, even if the tagline, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine,” is cumbersome and underscored once or twice too often; the audience gets the point the first time. However—The Imitation Game presents Benedict Cumberbatch in, if not his strongest work to date, at least one of his most enlightening, moving performances. Whereas the film sometimes is heavy handed in manipulating audience emotions, Cumberbatch’s portrayal is not. And Turing's story needs to be told again now.
“Are you paying attention?” Turing asks in an early scene. “Good . . . . You will miss things, important things. I am in control because I know things that you do not know.” Turing’s words could be Cumberbatch’s instructions for those who already expect a great deal from his acting but might overlook details in his emotionally layered, well-researched portrayal. Certainly, Cumberbatch incorporates Turing’s expressions or speech patterns into his acting, but he goes far deeper. When, for example, Turing’s work is threatened, Cumberbatch-as-Turing frantically attempts to protect his machine, revealing the boy’s desperation within the genius’ zeal to save “Christopher” from bureaucrats who do not understand.
“You will not judge until I am finished,” Turing commands. The judging process on the way to Oscar and Bafta is long and riddled with campaign anxiety, as well as potentially fickle voters. Yet the film festivals’ audience reaction has been positive. The Princess of Wales TIFF audience, clearly moved by the film, applauded loudly and eagerly discussed it on the way out. A crowd gathered to drop their tickets into the bin to vote for The Imitation Game as fan favorite. The previous evening’s screening, attended by director and cast, received a standing ovation. A few days earlier, the Telluride Film Festival applauded the film, especially Cumberbatch’s performance. In a few days more, the film will make its European debut at the BFI London Film Festival, where Cumberbatch’s hometown crowd surely will embrace his work.
I won’t say that The Imitation Game is the high point of Cumberbatch’s career, even if it eventually earns him an Oscar. I still expect a great deal of him and look forward to his future work, and, if he is the actor I believe he is, the roles and opportunities are more gratifying even than the many awards he continues to receive. I respect, admire, and enjoy this performance because Cumberbatch makes Turing human—not machine like—and accessible and memorable. The Imitation Game is good, but Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent.