Everything about “The Imitation Game” is exceptional – the lead performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, the needlessly tragic end of the historic tale it’s telling and, most of all, the “now it can be told” story of how the Nazis were defeated by code-breakers in World War II.
If you believe the movie – and you will as you watch it – it was all because of mathematical genius Alan Turing, who led a team of top-secret World War II code-breakers whose activities were kept secret for decades.
A couple of other things about this Turing fellow, whose incredible (but apparently true) tale is being told in “The Imitation Game.” 1) He was the father of the modern computer and 2) he committed suicide in 1954 in part because, as a homosexual, he had been forced by a court to undergo chemical castration in order to stay out of jail and continue his computer work.
Turing, quite literally, had a world-changing early vision of a computer that could do anything. We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but there’s no question that the idea for the machines we all use every day at both work and play was fathered by Turing.
Western civilization has recognized the genius of Albert Einstein for many decades, even though his theories are incomprehensible to most of us in any detail. Turing has remained weirdly unknown in the world of wholesale Western literacy, even though all of us are intimately connected every day with his genius.
The story we’re told is of a misfit genius tormented by classmates as a boy and roundly disliked as a man whose cloistered and closeted genius usually precluded the most negligible expression of sensitivity.
It was Turing who led the secret battle to build a machine that could break the seemingly unbreakable code of the Nazis’ Enigma Machine and win the war.
Obviously, the story of how they did just that couldn’t possibly have been made simple for us mathematical lip readers out here in the audience. So, too, have Turing and everyone else he worked with been simplified so that both the emotions of the drama and the suspense of the tale would all have us in their thrall from beginning to end.
That’s what the movie does. But then that’s what these wonderful actors are for – Cumberbatch as Turing, Knightley as the code-breaking team’s sole female member, whose war-winning mission was nothing if not personally complicated, and Charles Dance and Mark Strong as Turing’s icy government superiors. Neither had the foggiest idea how to relate to Turing’s abrasive, self-absorbed genius (especially the one played by Dance). Both resented having to.
Among British character actors, Dance and Strong both possess the sort of faces that practically created the art of film acting in the silent era. They’re both possessors of a piercing glower that gives the film an instant amount of dramatic shorthand to convey the hostility of the establishment types overseeing Turing’s wildly eccentric genius.
I think it’s ironic that we can largely thank American television since “CSI” for our finely developed 21st-century appetite for stories about genius. Add “A Beautiful Mind” and sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory,” on which geniuses have been turned into the prime-time version of family pets. In movies like this, they win World War II.
We’ve come a long way from all those movies and TV shows which covertly insisted that the smartest people in the room were always the least trustworthy.
But that, finally, is what did Turing in. And that story, too, is important to the people who made “The Imitation Game” – that in Britain, especially, homosexuality was considered so abhorrent that laws about it regularly traduced some of the most talented members of British society, whether Oscar Wilde or Alan Turing.
The utter insanity of that is another thing this film wants very much to tell you. And it does so, as it does everything else it wants to do, quite brilliantly.
A funny thing happened to the movies, I think, in the past few months. The ancient critical snobberies about foursquare British cinema have been buried by a couple of cinematic brothers under the skin – this and the film about Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything.” These, I think, wouldn’t have been possible if it were not for the dramatic panache routinely exhibited by British “Masterpiece Theater”-style filmmaking.
The urgencies of “cinema” no longer prevail. Great movies suffice quite nicely.
They are two of the best of the year. If I were you I wouldn’t miss either one.
The imitation game
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Director: Morten Tyldum
Running time: 114 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language, sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.
The Lowdown: Mathematician and father of the computer Alan Turing leads a top secret team to break the Nazis’ Enigma codes to win World War II.