4.5 / 5 stars
It can be quite a feat to construct an Oscar-worthy film when your cast is filled with star power. The actors can all-too easily overshadow the characters they play, especially when your lead is rising superstar Benedict Cumberbatch. Magnificently, The Imitation Game avoids such pitfalls thanks to actors and a director (Norwegian Morten Tyldum) who clearly care about the story enough to put away personal aspirations and egos for the sake of the art form.
Cumberbatch and cast are breathing life into larger-than-life people, namely, Alan Turing, the father of computers and artificial intelligence, who led a team of mathematical geniuses to decipher the “unbreakable” WWII Nazi code known as Enigma — only to be arrested and indicted for homosexual behavior.
Turing himself was socially awkward, almost machine-like in his interactions with others. It doesn’t seem like an enormous stretch for Cumberbatch considering his highly popular portrayal of the “high-functioning sociopath” Sherlock Holmes. However, unlike Conan Doyle’s creation, Turing was an actual man with emotions highly guarded. Here, Cumberbatch delves deeper than Holmes’ egomaniacal demeanor to inject true humanity into the mysterious Turing.
After being hired by the British government to help crack the Enigma code, Turing quickly takes over the project by building what is essentially the world’s first computer. But even after he and his team successfully decode Enigma, their job is far from over as they must keep their discovery a secret from just about everyone outside of top British intelligence. This small group of statisticians must decide who lives and who dies as they delicately try to use German communiques to thwart the Nazis without alerting them to the Allies’ sudden and unique advantage.
As the only woman on Turing’s team, as well as his one-time fiance and perhaps only true friend, Keira Knightley performs ably, contending with overbearing parents and a society that still believes women are beneath men. Her scenes with Cumberbatch are truly something special, the actors feeding off one another, Knightley’s Joan extracting the man behind the intellect. Their performances create a real empathy for characters whose natural genius can make them difficult to connect with.
Tyldum, who attracted some attention in the U.S. with the wild Headhunters, knows that power doesn’t lie in overwrought camera angles or editing, and lets first-timer Graham Moore’s script speak for itself. Tyldum’s direction is appropriate for the subtlety that many scenes convey, and although The Imitation Game is a war film of sorts, Tyldum doesn’t inundate us with lengthy shots of carpet bombings or front-line violence. Smooth transitions throughout the film nimbly move the script back and forth in Turing’s life, from when he was a child at boarding school, to his work on Enigma, to the tragedies of post-war life.
The end result is masterful, as we are given pieces of the puzzle that make up the man — pieces we must decipher and judge for ourselves, just as Turing and his team must decipher the Enigma code itself.
The film’s title comes from Turing’s own musings about artificial intelligence. To his mind, it is a game in which a subject is asked questions to determine whether it is man or machine. In today’s tsunami of technology, Turing’s accomplishments even beyond those involved in helping to win World War II, and save countless lives, are perhaps even more relevant today than when they were first performed. And while the final act of Turing’s life is not the focus of the film, it does leave one thinking what the world would be like today if the man had been able to continue his work with computers. And this perhaps is the greatest strength of The Imitation Game, making us feel for a man whose work was so classified that very few are aware he existed at all.