The Imitation Game serves many purposes, a biography of Alan Turing, a commentary on the cruel treatment of homosexuals in Britain throughout the twentieth century, the birthings of computing, and finally as a prestige picture for stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. It can’t be everything at once, unfortunately, and some of the conclusions reached in the closing credits seem a bit forced or unexplored. For instance some of the most dramatic actions taken by Turing’s squad, planning for the D-Day invasion for instance, are totally relegated to the credits. The assertion that cracking Enigma ended the European conflict two years earlier than it would otherwise is made by another line on the closing credits, not in any dramatic scene in the film.
The Imitation Game follows three periods of Turing’s life. His unhappy tenure in boarding school; his wartime efforts to beat the Nazi’s uncrackable Enigma ciphers; and his late life outing as a homosexual. The three narratives are told in parallel, overlapping each other. Each ends in tragedy for Turing. His first love dies in boarding school. His inventions used to crack the Nazi codes are destroyed once the war ends. For the “crime” of homosexuality Turing chooses chemical castration over prison, but within a year he commits suicide.
It's only in retrospect that Turing’s achievements were embraced as monumental. In death he’s become a martyr, one who’s come to represent an indictment not just of his home country but of the entire western world and their ongoing cruelty toward homosexuals. Part of his continuing relevance is to remind society that geniuses are precious and shouldn’t be sacrificed on the grounds of intolerance.
Cumberbatch certainly delivers the goods. His Alan Turing isn’t too far from the mold of his Sherlock character, in this rendering far more tragic. This is Cumberbatch’s film and everything here exists to bolster his performance. Nothing here is out of place in a prestige film with designs on the award circuit. The Imitation Game is even generous enough to give Keira Knightley a plum role of her own as Joan Clarke: Turing’s muse, collaborator, confidant, and beard. The promotional materials made very little of Clarke’s own prowess as a mathematician, and given the great success of Hidden Figures a couple years later this feels like a missed opportunity.
One of the glaring problems with biopics such as the Imitation Game, is that while the character at the core is fleshed out in great detail, the rest of the characters are little more than generalizations and their circumstances are greatly simplified. At the very least being a prestige picture the talent assembled herein is top notch. It’s up to Charles Dance to embody the military establishment and skepticism toward the burgeoning role of computing and act as the inexplicable antagonist towards Turing. Coming off his star turn on Game of Thrones, Dance pulls out his Tywin Lannister shtick to great effect. Mark Strong plays the shady spy who also is a mainline to the British government and the sole person who sees the value of Turing’s work.
The Imitation Game follows Enigma, another film loosely based on Turing’s accomplishments during the war. While it was criticized for not addressing Turing’s homosexuality, it’s still a fine thriller piece with broader statements about the nature of combat.