Benedict Cumberbatch, strong cast make ‘The Imitation Game’ an absorbing film

He was a codebreaker. A genius. A war hero. But Alan Turing was also gay in England at a time when it was illegal and dangerous to be so. His story is told in the absorbing new film “The Imitation Game.”

Adapted by screenwriter Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game” opens as British authorities, circa 1952, come to the home of Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to investigate a burglary. Something doesn’t seem right, though, and they keep their eyes on him. After surveillance, Turing is eventually arrested for gross indecency and convicted for being homosexual. Little do the officers know that there is another side to the man.

An almost pompous Cambridge mathematics scholar, Turing has been drafted by the Winston Churchill regime to help break Hitler’s Germany’s World War II Enigma machine. He rounds up a gang to help him, including linguists, chess champions, and intelligence officers.

All of them seem obvious choices with the exception of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who shows up to solve the auditioning crossword puzzle. Not only is she a female but is the first to finish. The assembled lot are in charge of breaking the military code the Nazis are using to encrypts its key war communications. After some time has passed not many outside of Turing believe in what they are trying to accomplish—especially his superior—but eventually they realize they are all on to something.

A few films have been made about Turing, including a 1996 television movie with Derek Jacobi and the 2012 documentary “Codebreaker.” A musical by Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys has also been announced. Directed by Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game” isn’t as deep as possible. It’s been given something of a glossy Hollywood treatment. Nonetheless, this is the highest profile and perhaps best depiction of Turing’s life.

The early scenes can feel a little busy, however. Narratively, the film jumps a bit too much. In flashbacks, we see Turing as a young man and the friendship he establishes with another young lad in school. It doesn’t end well and it seems to have left a mark on Turing’s adult life.

The film kicks into a smoother, more linear path when Turing assembles his team, especially Knightley’s Joan.
What it lacks is much illumination into the lead character’s personal life.

Many might argue about its gay content—or more specifically, its lack of gay content. Cumberbatch’s Turing is gay but it is very subtle. There are no interactions with other men. There are furtive glances. Cumberbatch has stated in interviews that audiences don’t need to see sex scenes between himself and another guy to get the gist of the movie. In a sense he is right—Turing’s real passion in life seemed to be breaking codes.

It’s as a wartime thriller that this movie works so efficiently. It helps to have a top-drawer ensemble. The supporting cast is full of strong British actors such as Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear and Charles Dance. Knightley, too, is enormously appealing as the feisty Joan.

Yet the real draw is the chameleon-like Cumberbatch, who is magnetic. He fully captures Turing—a nervous, anguished type who has problems fitting in with others. His relationship with Joan opens him up—she is one of the only people he can confide it. Both Cumberbatch and Knightley are up for Golden Globe awards and likely Oscars as well.

Turing’s story is ultimately sad, including what happens to him after his conviction, but the film is not a downer. As a whole, it celebrates what he accomplished. Thanks to his team, the war is abbreviated and thousands of lives are saved. Turing ushered in modern day computing.

Cynics can complain that “The Imitation Game” seems like a prestige picture, one made solely to win awards. Others might quibble with its history and its more minimal than expected gay content. Yet the actors give this depth, and the subject matter is fascinating. With Cumberbatch nailing the character of Turing, the film becomes a whole lot more than it could be.

“The Imitation Game” opens Christmas Day in metro Atlanta area theaters.