During the winter of 1952, British authorities entered the home of mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to investigate a reported burglary. They instead ended up arresting Turing himself on charges of “gross indecency,” an accusation that would lead to his devastating conviction for the criminal offense of homosexuality – little did officials know, they were actually incriminating the pioneer of modern-day computing. Famously leading a motley group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers, he was credited with cracking the so-called unbreakable codes of Germany’s World War II Enigma machine. An intense and haunting portrayal of a brilliant, complicated man, The Imitation Game follows a genius who under nail-biting pressure helped to shorten the war and, in turn, save thousands of lives.
Imitation, in the case of The Imitation Game, is more about survival in various forms than a mere game. It’s not only true of Alan Turing’s work to crack Germany’s Enigma machine, but also of the ways he tries to pass through life when homosexual activity was illegal in Britain, and how Turing attempts to imitate normal social interactions to keep his job.
Fortunately, The Imitation Game goes beyond mere mimicry to provide a fascinating look into the life of Turing. Brilliantly performed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is shown here as fiercely intelligent and tragically repressed. The film also suggests that Turing had some form of Aspergers; his brilliance is countered by a near-complete lack of social understanding, whether in regards to his team at Bletchley Park or to his superiors. The only person who can connect with him is a fellow outsider – in this case, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whose skills in cryptology match Turing’s own.
The bulk of the film takes place during Turing’s time at Bletchley, though the film does flash forward to Turing’s arrest in 1952 periodically. The film also goes into Turing’s time as a schoolboy, where he’s shown passing notes to the object of his affection in a coded language only they understand. It’s not exactly a subtle mirroring of Turing’s sexuality and love of cryptography, but it works in showing the secrecy that enveloped his life.
The film has been dinged in some quarters for not showing Turing’s sex life, and I do think this is rather unfair. The way that the film is set up in the 1952 segments comes from the perspective of a police officer who uncovers Turing’s secrets. When the film moves forward to show Turing post-conviction, it’s a single sequence where he’s already undergoing chemical castration. Showing Turing in a sexual scenario, even with the situation that led to Turing’s arrest, would be superfluous.
Ultimately, The Imitation Game is an abbreviated form of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, with some liberties taken with the story. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s tremendous work here, along with the solid approach given to the material and the good-to-great performances of the supporting cast, it comes together as an intriguing glimpse into the life of a genius.