An en­coded life

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

The Imi­ta­tion Game, his­tor­i­cal drama, rated PG-13, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3 chiles The Imi­ta­tion Game is a very en­ter­tain­ing movie. It could have been a lot more than that.

Di­rec­tor Morten Tyl­dum and screen­writer Gra­ham Moore have taken the en­gross­ing story of Alan Tur­ing, the Bri­tish war hero, com­puter pi­o­neer, and ho­mo­sex­ual mar­tyr, and fit­ted it into the fa­mil­iar con­fines of a biopic stocked with Movie Mo­ments, rather than free­ing it (to para­phrase Fitzger­ald) to romp like the mind of God.

The mind of God is rel­e­vant here be­cause Tur­ing was deal­ing in ar­eas that seemed at the time to be beyond hu­man so­lu­tion. At the on­set of World War II, the Ger­mans were giv­ing the Al­lies fits with their dis­patches en­coded on a ci­pher ma­chine named Enigma. The codes were in­cred­i­bly com­plex and were changed ev­ery 24 hours. Tur­ing was charged by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to help crack the codes. And when at last his team suc­ceeded, in or­der to keep the Nazis from know­ing Enigma had been com­pro­mised, the com­mand had to de­cide which in­for­ma­tion to act on and which to let go. Which lives to save and which to sacrifice. Play­ing God.

In The Imi­ta­tion Game’s ac­count, Tur­ing (Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch) is put to work on the Enigma codes with a team al­ready as­sem­bled at Bletch­ley Park, the topse­cret fa­cil­ity in Buck­ing­hamshire. With his ar­ro­gance he quickly alien­ates pretty much ev­ery­one in­volved, from the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer to the math whizzes on the team. He’s shown as hav­ing a touch of Asperger’s syn­drome — he doesn’t play nicely with oth­ers (a trait shared by Cum­ber­batch’s best-known character, Bri­tish tele­vi­sion’s Sher­lock Holmes). But Tur­ing’s skills were such that Win­ston Churchill him­self in­ter­vened to in­sist that the young Cam­bridge ge­nius be given ev­ery as­sis­tance, and that those around him suck it up and get along. (Churchill would later credit Tur­ing with mak­ing the sin­gle great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the Al­lied vic­tory over the Nazis.)

The film­mak­ers have con­structed Tur­ing’s story in three time pe­ri­ods, which they shuf­fle back and forth. They be­gin near the end in 1952, with po­lice in­ves­ti­gat­ing a bur­glary at Tur­ing’s home and a de­tec­tive (Rory Kin­n­ear) net­tled enough by Tur­ing’s ec­cen­tric be­hav­ior to start prob­ing his record. The fall­out from this in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be the dis­cov­ery of Tur­ing’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. In Eng­land at that time, en­gag­ing in ho­mo­sex­ual ac­tiv­ity was a crim­i­nal and se­verely pun­ish­able of­fense.

The film’s ear­li­est time frame finds young Tur­ing (Alex Lawther) in his board­ing-school days, learn­ing about cryp­tol­ogy and be­com­ing in­fat­u­ated with a fel­low school­boy (for whom, the movie fan­ci­fully has it, he will later nick­name the pro­to­com­puter he built at Bletch­ley to crack the code). This sec­tion in­tro­duces the for­tune-cookie mantra that will echo through the movie: “Some­times it’s the very peo­ple no one imag­ines any­thing of that do things no one can imag­ine.”

The main event is the wartime as­sault on Enigma. Tur­ing is in­ter­viewed at Bletch­ley by the of­fi­cer in charge, Com­man­der Den­nis­ton (Charles Dance), who is so ir­ri­tated by him he’s ready to throw him out on his ear — un­til, at the door­way, Tur­ing makes one of those game-chang­ing Movie Mo­ment re­marks that causes a character to stop in his tracks and mut­ter, “What did you say?”

The prob­lem with th­ese mo­ments is that we don’t be­lieve things hap­pened that way. We’re get­ting a movie scene, not an in­sight. Another comes at the meet­ing of Tur­ing and Joan Clarke, whose math­e­mat­i­cal bril­liance made her one of the rare woman crypt­an­a­lysts ac­cepted into the Bletch­ley fra­ter­nity. They would be­come en­gaged briefly, de­spite Clarke’s knowl­edge and ac­cep­tance of his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. It was Tur­ing who broke off the en­gage­ment, but they re­mained close friends till his death. Kiera Knightly does a smart, in­ci­sive job as Clarke, but her movie-star looks are a dis­trac­tion.

All the act­ing is ter­rific, with spe­cial men­tion to Mark Strong as Ste­wart Men­zies, wartime head of MI6, and Matthew Goode as one of Tur­ing’s team­mates. Cum­ber­batch plays the moody, bril­liant, so­cially clue­less, hope­lessly ar­ro­gant sci­en­tist with a stut­ter­ing, mer­cu­rial dogged­ness that will land him on Os­car’s short list. In­ter­est­ingly, the ac­tor’s ca­reer break­through came in a 2004 tele­vi­sion movie in which he por­trayed Stephen Hawk­ing, who hap­pens to be the sub­ject of this year’s other Bri­tish sci­en­tist biopic, The The­ory of Ev­ery­thing, a sim­i­larly movied-up eva­sion of the work­ings of a great mind.

Tyl­dum and Moore’s great­est of­fense may be the ro­man­ti­cized sim­pli­fi­ca­tion with which they show Tur­ing holed up alone and as­sem­bling his com­puter (which was ac­tu­ally called the Bombe) from scratch; the real project was in­fin­itely more com­plex, with Tur­ing and as­so­ciates draw­ing on a Pol­ish de­sign. A scene in which an over­heard com­ment at a bar lights the bulb for Tur­ing will re­mind you of those old song­writer biopics where an off­hand remark in­spires a hit song. And the cli­mac­tic suc­cess scene is thrilling, but it has a nag­ging fa­mil­iar­ity.

Maybe there’s no way around that sort of thing. This is, after all a movie, and its mix of orig­i­nal­ity and boil­er­plate may be all we can rea­son­ably ex­pect from the biopic genre. It’s good fun. But with all that bril­liance at the cen­ter of this story, it would have been even more thrilling if they could have found a way to crack the code for mak­ing th­ese kinds of movies and tran­scend that enigma.

— Jonathan Richards

Fo­cused group: Keira Knightly, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Matthew Goode, and Allen Leech

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