Here there be spoilers:
In the early ‘50s, Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is called to the house of eccentric and phlegmatic mathematician and Cambridge teacher Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), to investigate an apparent burglary. But Nock finds Turing uninterested in the crime and eager to rid himself of the visiting law. Realising Turing deliberately insulted him and other policemen to this end, and fascinated by the sprawl of mysterious technology Turing has set up in his parlour, Nock begins to investigate, hoping to catch a Cambridge Five-level spy. He follows instead a thread that uncovers Turing’s astounding, entirely secret role in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code on the way to learning Turing’s rather different secret. Flashback to 1940, when the socially inept and often obnoxious Turing is interviewed by Bletchley Park chieftain Denniston (Charles Dance), turning into a duel of brusque dismissal between the two men, before Turing is reluctantly hired and placed on a team of code breakers and linguists captained by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). When Alexander nixes Turing’s idea to build a proto-computer to unravel the staggering possible variants in the Enigma code because of the price tag attached, Turing gets MI6 interlocutor Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) to pass on a letter to Winston Churchill explaining his proposal, and is rewarded with leadership of the team. Turing immediately stirs dislike by casually firing several team members and labouring for months on his experimental boondoggle. He harvests new talent for the project by placing a puzzle in the newspaper and offering a job to anyone who can solve it in under five minutes, and turns up mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whose talents and education are evidently up to the job but whose fusty parents are perturbed by the offence to decorum the job might entail.
Turing’s life and achievements have long deserved greater recognition, and the achievements of Bletchley Park have begun to feel like a modern creation myth, as the intersection of World War Two with all its associated evil and greatness, with the birth of the most crucial of modern technologies, and also its attendant social significance as a scene where people usually left out of the social mythology of the war were able to play a vital role. That angle was recently plumbed by the TV series The Bletchley Circle. Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001), was a good, honest thriller that cast Dougray Scott as a hunky, hetero Turing variant. More properly, Turing himself was the subject of a 1996 telemovie, Breaking the Code, a cramped and matter-of-fact production that was nonetheless considerably preferable to this slab of painfully by-the-book screenwriting and often indifferent filmmaking. If it is superior to the likes of other recent British award-bait cinema like The King’s Speech (2010) and The Theory of Everything (2014), with which it shares a romanticised fascination for doomed savants, it’s because it’s a better story, sold with a certain level of theatrical enthusiasm by a fine cast and kept moving with superficial energy by director Morten Tyldum, who made the enjoyable Norse nailbiter Headhunters (2011). But digging a little deeper into this work exposes a host of annoyances. Breaking the Code featured Derek Jacobi as Turing, portrayed as a stammering, highly nerdy, but enthusiastic intellectual, and allows that intellect space to express itself with explorations of theory presumed verboten for the audience this film is intended for. The Imitation Game makes Turing even stranger, a possible obsessive-compulsive and strong blip on the Asperger’s spectrum, and I wish I didn’t have the feeling throughout that this was designed to push the character ever-closer to Cumberbatch’s persona well-known from his TV series Sherlock.
Such casting-by-association is apparent also in asking Knightley to reprise her role from the infinitely better A Dangerous Method (2011) as the under-appreciated nascent feminist heroine sprouting under the wing of a major male intellectual icon, Dance working variations on his contemptuous hauteur from Game of Thrones, and Strong doing the dry, knowing, quietly malevolent character he’s done in works as diverse as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and John Carter (2012). The impression that they’re playing a pile-up of mannerisms reinforces the strange indecisiveness in Cumberbatch and Knightley’s performances in the first half of the film. Moreover, the film clearly yearns to annex the acclaim of A Beautiful Mind (2002) with its similarly addled hero: Alexandre Desplat’s score offers up similar tingling, heady, Arvo Part-esque arpeggios to James Horner’s score for the Ron Howard film. The meretricious nature of all this is hard to ignore, and that’s even without noting how obvious Graham Moore’s script is, particularly in the regulation all-is-lost moment when Dennistone is about to be mean and pull the plug on Turing’s machine, or the embarrassingly clichéd scene when Clarke first enters the film, to be mistaken for a secretarial candidate when turning up for the second phase of Turing’s talent scouting, and then beating everyone in the room to solving his brainbuster. Tyldum badly fumbles the flashback structure. The original intent seems to have been to unfold the mystery of Turing’s identity as an ironic pastiche of investigation that leads only into personal pain and hidden identities, but the timeline alternations are clumsy and self-spoiling, and the filmmakers can’t even decide whether Turing’s portentous narration is sourced in the interview scenes or non-diegetic. Tyldum offers a third layer to the structure in leaping back to Turing’s schoolboy days (played there by Alex Lawther), where swift vignettes portray Turing’s cruel tormenting by fellows, which thoroughly explains why he’s less than charming to other members of the society that did such things to him, and also his strong attachment, shading into a powerful but seemingly one-sided romance, to pal Christopher (Jack Bannon), whose death from tuberculosis left him bereft and haunted.
There’s strong pathos here that is nonetheless diffused by the lumpen editing, and the agonisingly reductive use of Turing's formative woes, as Turing names his computer after Christopher, and the repetition of Christopher’s poster-worthy line, “Sometimes it’s the people who we expect nothing of who do things nobody expects,” or some such rot. Moreover, The Imitation Game represents a peerless example of an insidious habit that inflects too much pop culture today: pseudo-drama designed to appeal to the audience’s progressive self-congratulation. In this case, Turing is nominated as tragic hero destroyed by the unthinking society he helped save for his sexuality, which is entirely correct, but reduces portrayal of that sexuality to a schoolboy crush and a blithe reference by Turing, during Nock’s interview of him, to a man “touching my penis” (that is, at least, a peerlessly Cumberbatchian line, to go up there with “You have to bite it.”). Perhaps this reflects wariness about falling into the same trap as Brokeback Mountain (2005) supposedly did in turning off elderly members of the AAMPAS with confronting gay activity, but certainly reflects an annoying failure of any sort of nerve. Although clearly Turing was active in England’s gay subculture of the time with all its hidden colour and danger, The Imitation Game cannot countenance that. Viewed as a whole, the film’s approach to Turing’s sexuality represents a surface appeal to the viewer – “Oh, isn’t it awful what they did to him just because he was gay!” we are supposed to say – whilst the film carefully neuters and infantilises Turing.
Pauline Kael assumed that Omar Sharif’s role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was to provide more familiar, relatable movie star stuff next to the fey ambiguity of the main character; so too here Tyldum makes sure Goode displays some good old fashioned swashbuckling lothario cred, and emphasises Turing’s relationship with Clarke, with at least the piquant irony that because he wants to marry her to save her gifts from conservative mores, he is her beard rather the other way around. Moore’s script laboriously plays out as a rewrite of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) amidst wars and spying: the shy, awkward smart guy meets a funky lady who advises on how to make himself popular, and so we get such pearls of bullshit as when Turing gives out apples to his befuddled teammates. Tyldum tries to give a panoramic sense of events, meaning occasional shots of the characters travelling through blitzed streets and montages of random war footage and CGI submarines stalking convoys, beyond the lackadaisical habits of the small back room. The film at least pulls off one movement of dramatic panache: frustrated by the computer’s inability to crack the code, the team retreat mournfully to a pub to kick up their heels, where Alexander’s attempts to crack on to one of Clarke’s girlfriends sparks an insight into how to break the code, leading to a race to try out the possibility, and then being faced with an awesome power over life and death that Turing realises they must ration with strict logic in order not to warn the Germans they have rumbled their code. The only trouble here is that the gimmick of barroom sexuality giving the genius an idea how to work his magic is copied holus-bolus from, yes, A Beautiful Mind. The film illustrates the team’s moral agony in the face of having the power to ward off death and not being able to use it once they break the code by a forgivably personal manipulation: the team’s very first decoding success prove to alert them to the imminent destruction of a convoy one member’s (Matthew Beard) brother is a sailor with – except that I then remembered that almost exactly the same plot stake was used in Enigma.
A major subplot detailing the presence of a Soviet spy in the midst of Bletchley, which proves to be another member of Turing’s team, John Cairncross (Allen Leech), seems to have been included to give the proceedings the buzz of intrigue, but it’s developed so limply that it scarcely seems worth the effort, paying off as it does in a “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine” punch-line that might have been coherently linked to one of the chief spurs for homosexuality’s legalisation in the 1960s, precisely for the reason gay men were such ripe targets for blackmailers. But such linkages can only be made if you already know this history; the film certainly can't make them. Moreover, the film concocts the specious idea Turing uncovered Cairncross who actually didn’t even work in the same part of Bletchley as him, and that Menzies was able to use him for disinformation. Finally, Cumberbatch and Knightley do kick to real life in a pair of memorable late scenes in the film, firstly as Turing outs himself to Clarke in trying get her to leave Bletchley, to which she responds at first with frustrating acquiescence, happy at the thought of a purely intellectual union, and then, when he changes tactics and insults her, responding with cold fury: as desperately unconvincing are the dramatic reasons leading to this scene, it plays out well. So too does the last meeting of the pair, when Clarke, having since grown glam and happy in a traditional union, comes to visit the embattled Turing and finds him in depressive torment, where again the stars emote well, although the most heartbreaking detail used with effect in Breaking the Code – the hormone therapy Turing was forced to take after his conviction caused him to grow breasts – is elided, and the film carefully elides the grim climax of his life so as not to overly spoil the afterglow of vague triumphalism. The Imitation Game is a mildly entertaining contraption whilst it unspools, but just as Turing’s machine was ingeniously constructed specifically to crack German code, this film is merely a mechanism assembled out of spare parts, designed to crack the Oscar code.