It’s not easy to distill the life of any person into a two-hour film, especially a person as complicated as Alan Turing. Turing was the brilliant—if socially awkward—mathematician who helped to crack the infamous “Enigma” code-machine used by the Nazis during World War II, building a machine that would become the basis of modern computing. But Turing’s remarkable accomplishments are shadowed by the tragic details of his final years. Arrested for homosexuality (which was illegal in Britain until 1967), Turing was sentenced to undergo horrifying chemical castration treatments. It is believed that the pain of these treatments led Turing to commit suicide in 1954.
Any one aspect of Turing’s life would make for an absorbing film. The Imitation Gamewants to have it all, centering on Turing’s work to break the Enigma code, but bookended by the investigation into Turing’s secrets which would lead to his public shaming, and even flashing back to a formative schoolboy romance. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s a testament to Norwegian director Morten Tyldum that the film moves at such a fast—and coherent—clip. Tyldum is making his English-language debut here, having worked in action films in his native country. He brings that sense of energy and pace into this film, which makes long scenes of math and puzzle nerds staring at wires and blinking lights surprisingly exciting.
The early portion of the film focuses on Turing’s socially awkward mannerisms (it’s been theorized that Turing had Asperger’s Syndrome), and his clashes with the top brass of the British military. These scenes, while clever, could easily veer into sitcom territory if not for the steady performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch himself looks so alien, with his long face, sharp, tiny eyes, and reptilian cheekbones, that he underscores the film’s idea that Turing built machines because he was a machine himself. But Cumberbatch brings a charisma and tenderness to his performance that makes the sacrifices made by the people around him, all in the name of his genius, plausible.
The film wants to present its audience a code as impressive as Enigma. For The Imitation Game, Turing himself is a puzzle. But the revelatory moment the film offers is so telegraphed that those scenes (while well-acted from both Cumberbatch and Alex Lawther as the young Turing) don’t land with the emotional heft that the booming Alexandre Desplat score assumes. A better representation of Turing’s character comes in an earlier scene that follows the joyous unravelling of Enigma’s secrets with the cold realization that their victory doesn’t mean what they might have hoped.
It’s in these emotional moments, and the harrowing scenes which chronicle Turing’s final years, that the film becomes something simpler and still more complex. Turing the man, in the end, is far more resonant than Turing the machine.