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John P. McCarthyNovember 24, 2014
CODE BREAKERS. Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong in "The Imitation Game."

2014 will go down as a fine year for biopics about exceptional Brits. “The Theory of Everything,” which looks at the first marriage of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, opened in early November. “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s study of landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, arrives in December. And “The Imitation Game,” about mathematician Alan Turing, comes out November 28th. All are legitimate award contenders.

Alan M. Turing is known for his instrumental code-breaking efforts during World War II, his pioneering work in computer theory and for being gay. Since “The Imitation Game” addresses each of these topics, one imagines its distributor Harvey Weinstein has been touting the movie as “The King’s Speech” meets “The Social Network” meets “Milk.”

Graham Moore’s screenplay is based on Andrew Hodges’ comprehensive 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma, as was Hugh Whitemore’s stage drama “Breaking the Code.” Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing emerges from the film a national hero, a martyr for gay rights and as the embodiment of an ideal called diversity. To create this portrait, Moore and Norwegian director Morten Tyldum engage in typical amounts of simplification, supposition, conflation and embellishment. Not everything adds up, but the result is appreciably edifying and entertaining.

As a wartime thriller, “The Imitation Game” fits into the familiar “Masterpiece Theater” mold. Tasteful and conventional, it features lots of fresh-faced British actors in tweed jackets and wool jumpers. Most of the action takes place at Bletchley Park, the Buckinghamshire estate where Turing and a handful of cryptanalysts labor to crack Germany’s Enigma naval code using a computational machine he builds.

Alternately sanguine and jocular in tone, these sequences don’t communicate enough doubt or dread about the war’s outcome; and the production design doesn’t adequately simulate wartime deprivations. Deploying obviously fake digital images to represent pertinent military events, such as U-boats stalking Atlantic shipping convoys, doesn’t help on the authenticity front. Nor does the glib ring of some of Moore’s dialogue (“Damn you and your useless machine!”).

None of this prevents the audience from being stirred by their Eureka moment or from grasping how vital their work was to defeating the Nazis. But director Tyldum has a better feel for two more personal and impressionistic plot strands. The first involves Turing’s experience at his public school, Sherborne, where he is cruelly hazed and where his friendship with another boy serves as a formative oasis. The second concerns a police investigation in postwar Manchester, where in 1952 Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” and where, two years later, he committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple.

Cumberbatch brings his immense talent and intelligence—and not too much glamour—to the socially awkward, notoriously disheveled protagonist. He doesn’t overact or put too fine a point on any single personality trait (Turing’s stammer is subtle). Likewise, Keira Knightley, who plays Turing’s colleague and confidante Joan Clarke, refrains from emoting.

The same can’t be said for Matthew Goode, who, saddled with some of the film’s cornier lines, gives an annoyingly unctuous performance as fellow code-breaker Hugh Alexander. Charles Dance portrays the clueless commander nominally in charge of Bletchley Park and Mark Strong brings a sinister gravitas to Stuart Menzies, the dapper MI6 spymaster who is really pulling the strings.

These three characters represent the upper-middle-class establishment that, according to the film, Turing was never comfortable with and vice versa. Members of the Manchester constabulary are their working-class counterparts, men more likely to vocalize disgust at Turing’s sexual proclivities and who help enforce the anti-gay bias enshrined in British law.

Apart from the war, the main conflict in “The Imitation Game” stems from the tension between highly intelligent, freethinking individuals—math nerds and first-generation computer geeks (including brainy women like Joan)—and a society that either overlooks or marginalizes them due to their differences and refusal to conform. Moore expresses this dynamic in the line: “The people no one imagines anything of are the ones who do the things no one can imagine.”

On the surface, it’s not clear Turing can be characterized as a true outsider. Apolitical in every sense, there is no evidence he committed treason (the Manchester police suspect he might be a spy). And as a white, male fellow of King’s College, Cambridge he enjoyed a privileged position in academia—within a set of institutions fairly described as rarefied and protective of eccentrics but not as anti-tradition or fundamentally iconoclastic.

Yet these facts are trumped by something more fundamental—the way his mind worked. The strongest indication Turing was truly different—an avatar of diversity—was his constitutional inability to follow rules and regulations outside the spheres of mathematics and pure logic. Even within those realms he was a maverick insofar as he ignored strictures or precedents if he didn’t find them useful. He approached seemingly intractable problems, games and puzzles from a novel perspective. Hence his skill as a code-breaker; hence his genius.

This notion of difference is connected to Turing’s sexuality and his influential thinking about computers in an interview with the detective responsible for his prosecution. Asked about his famous argument concerning artificial intelligence, known as the Turing Test or “imitation game,” according to which if a machine functions in a way that makes it appear to be thinking, then it is thinking, he says computers are capable of thought, they just think differently than humans. The implication being, we must start by respecting differences.

Finally, though, the movie’s handling of Turing’s sexuality is slightly puzzling. While it by no means keeps his orientation a secret—Turing didn’t go out of his way to hide it from those he trusted—”The Imitation Game” is noticeably circumspect about his willingness to act on his desires. No encounters are depicted; in short, it’s a sexless movie about a man who was by no means celibate. This modesty could be a function of the filmmakers’ efforts to cultivate an air of mystery and intrigue. Or it could be the result of a conscious decision to treat the issue matter-of-factly, in a manner that signals an acceptance of same-sex relations as normal and natural.

No doubt some will read it as an attempt to homogenize Turing’s story, to ensure the PG-13 movie is palatable to mainstream audiences. It might even be interpreted as vaguely complicit with Britain’s antediluvian laws against “indecent” or “deviant” behavior, which remained on the books long after 1952. Ultimately, however, the film’s elliptical approach to sex enables a fuller portrait of Turing to be drawn, one that isn’t clouded by potentially sordid or sensationalistic details and that respects both his privacy and his public accomplishments.

At his sentencing, Turing was given two choices: serve time or undergo hormone therapy. He opted for the “chemical cure” and its debilitating affects are pronounced when Joan visits him in a wrenching (though not maudlin) scene at the end of the film. According to a title card, this borderline barbaric, science-based punishment was the direct cause of his decision to take his own life. But as logical and dramatically compelling as the linkage may be, it is only conjecture. Turing left no note and we can’t know for certain why he killed himself.

This isn’t to say he wasn’t a victim of horrible discrimination or that he doesn’t warrant being held up by gay rights advocates. But as “The Imitation Game” shows, Alan Turing was much more than his sexual identity. The key source of his difference was the way his mind worked; and because he used it for the greater good, he deserves our admiration. Regardless of what he did or didn’t do, because he was a fascinating, flawed human being, he is a worthy candidate for redemption on screen, as well as where it really counts—in the eyes of God.

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