While their careers include fine performances, Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are so ambitious, so subtle and so intelligent as the protagonists of “The Imitation Game” that their earlier work feels light.
A dramatized biography of Alan Turing, a World War II code breaker for England, the film offers them roles that require them to move through multiple motifs of bravery and cowardice.
It’s a remarkable English-language directorial debut for Norway’s Morten Tyldum, who gave us the supercool thriller “Headhunters.” Here he combines adventure and life story, gracefully tackling theme after theme. Screenwriter Graham Moore’s extraordinary script is about a gay mastermind creating technical discoveries that help save his nation, then being persecuted like an outsider in his own land.
At every turn, they hit the bull’s-eye. Cumberbatch plays Turing as a genius with an Asperger’s-like disconnect from humanity. When he arrives at the Bletchley Park intelligence HQ, a brilliant, unsocial young mathematician recruited to help crack the Nazis’ secret Enigma messaging system, he seems equal parts smart and unhinged.
He annoys the base commander (the delightfully starchy Charles Dance) by denying he’s “a certified prodigy.” As Turing explains, “Newton discovered binomial theorem at the age of 22, Einstein wrote four papers that changed the world by the age of 26. As far as I can tell, I’ve hardly made par.”
Turing works best on his own, considering human beings theoretical puzzles. In fact, he tries to get most of his co-workers fired so their salaries can be invested in his mechanical design project.
A police detective who encounters Turing in 1952 considers him a mystery, investigating his life and ultimately causing a terrible result. The film probes Turing along the same lines, circling back to his days as a remarkably bright but solitary schoolboy, to his postwar life, and to his mission to design a machine to decipher Enigma’s 159 billion possible codes. The film is beautifully shot and the slowly improving device is one of its best looking creations, a prehistoric computer attached to red cables that look like huge veins pumping it blood.
Unlikely as it might seem, this is a love story. Knightley sashays into the tale as Joan Clarke, another math sensation whom Turing invites to join his wartime team. She doesn’t take his arrogance personally, giving him friendship that everyone else withholds. They are ideal co-workers and good, humorous companions. When Bletchley’s leaders move to suspend her — women aren’t allowed to view classified material — she and Turing wonder whether they ought to become a legal pair.
“The Imitation Game” is about battling a war by fighting one’s own bureaucrats, and scientists living lives devoted to knowledge while keeping information about themselves in secrecy. It’s about marriage in an era that considered it a social duty rather than a pass to personal happiness. It’s about when humanity depends on your life, and when it’s content with your death.
Every scene refocuses the film’s conversation, places a new code in front of the actors that we must crack along with them. Moore’s gripping script isn’t factually ideal, but dramatically, the film entirely lives up to Cumberbatch’s opening line: “Are you paying attention?”