Since Alan Turing, now widely considered to be the father of modern computer science, lived a life intensely shrouded in secrecy, both because of the nature of the work he did for the British government during WWII and his homosexuality, it was perhaps inevitable that The Imitation Game wouldn’t exceed the breadth and depth of the flimsy Wikipedia entry devoted to him. At best, Morten Tyldum’s biopic attests to the ferocity with which Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) applied himself to his work, and how his perseverance was instrumental in the development of the electromechanical device that cracked the German Enigma machine and, as a result, shortened the war by as much as two years, thus saving millions of lives. At worst, it approaches Turing’s homosexuality not so much with kid gloves as it infantilizes it, along with ideas of social conflict and drama, in a manner typically associated with superhero cinema.
The film begins in 1951, one year before Turing would be prosecuted for his sexuality and punished with chemical castration. Three years later he would commit suicide by ingesting cyanide, and the film rather tackily foreshadows the tragedy with a shot of Turing sweeping remnants of the poison from the floor of his home in Manchester following a robbery. Off-put by Turing’s peevishness and flippancy about the crime, one of the investigators on the case, Nock (Rory Kinnear), takes it upon himself to delve into the man’s background, which only leads him to a dead end after discovering Turing’s curiously empty government file. “I think Alan Turing is hiding something,” says Kinnear’s audience proxy in a gratingly winking manner that’s part and parcel with The Imitation Game’s flatly instructive depiction of both Turing’s lonely days at an independent boys school in the 1920s and no less lonelier time at Bletchley Park during WII as part of the Government Code and Cypher School.
Like Alexandre Desplat’s score, bouncy even at its most menacing, the film is afflicted with a terminal case of the cutes, starting with the ambiguity-free exchange between Turing and Charles Dance’s Denniston at the GC&CS. Turing’s interview for a cryptanalyst position passes by as a steady torrent of quips, with Turing transparently laying out his philosophy of the world (agnostic about violence, ambivalent about politics) and Denniston combatting the mathematician’s off-putting sense of entitlement. Turing’s attitude is jarring at first, until it’s understood that the filmmakers reductively see him as being afflicted with the same mania as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—an obvious combination of OCD and autism that’s dully traced back to young little Turing’s panic about preventing his carrots and peas from touching at the Sherborne School cafeteria. Turing gets the job, natch, but sadly sees the bullying ways of his tormentors at Sherborne resurrected among his fellow GC&CS code-breakers.
The film’s main storyline transpires during the war years. While the Allies fight the Germans, the integrity of the quasi-Justice League that Denniston has built at the GC&CS is ostensibly compromised by Turing’s incessant belief that the machine he’s building will break the Enigma machine. That Winston Churchill himself bankrolls Turing’s project when no one else will exudes an air of fiction given the way the narrative is prone to playing such acts of wheeling and dealing for shits and giggles, but the film’s faithful replica of the bombe doesn’t evoke such frivolity. No one stands before this ominous, monolith-like beacon of promise, with its wall of rotating, ever-clacking drums, without quaking at the thought of what their persistence in cryptanalyzing the Enigma can mean to the war effort. Watching the subservience of the film’s characters to the very machine they built, then seeing how this almost existential panic informs “the imitation game” that, years later, Turing plays with Nock at the police station during a battle of wills, is close to a masterstroke.
An ironic masterstroke, as the unease with which the filmmakers articulate Turing’s devotion to exploring the possibility of machinery showing intelligent behavior is itself The Imitation Game’s only sign of intelligent life. The trajectory of cryptanalyst Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), from her potential being squandered by her parents to her brief engagement to Turing to, finally, her friendly visit with him just prior to his suicide, is a means for the film to slavishly shore up her bona fides as both a feminist and “fag hag.” It’s a fashionable pose, and given the liberties the film takes here and elsewhere, it’s surprising that it refuses to penetrate Turing’s carnality and allow Cumberbatch to truly wrestle with the torment of the man’s sexuality. It does, though, reduce Turing in his last days to a Gollum-like creature who regards the bombe-like contraption in his flat as a precious reminder of his childhood crush at Sherborne. In this way, this real-life genius, a eunuch even before his castration, remains an enigma, seen only through a lens of psychoanalytically trite pulp romanticism.