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The Imitation Game Review: Cumberbatch Shines in Turing Biopic

The striking The Imitation Game has "Oscar Bait" written all over it.

Review by Matt Cummings

For those of us who've ever been labeled a 'nerd' or 'geek' when it was unfashionable to be one, the last few years have been particularly fulfilling. No more the objects of ridicule, we're a fixture on television (The Big Bang Theory, Scorpion) and our actions save and remake the world (Skyfall, The Theory of Everything). That's a joke obviously, but for Mathematician Alan Turing it couldn't have been more true. Perhaps Geek #1 and a force in the ending of WWII, Turing gets his own biopic in the Oscar-worthy The Imitation Game, a movie that's far more than its title suggests.

Turning (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant mathematician who's watched Britain become engulfed in the madness of WWII with seemingly no way to keep Adolf Hitler's meteoric rise from leading to his country's eventual end. The key to Germany's success is not so much people or bombs, but Enigma, a decoding machine that's made all of their transmissions unbreakable by human means. Ships are sunk, cities destroyed, and countless lives lost, all without a way to crack the code. But Turing has a plan: develop one machine to beat another. His theories are panned by Commander Dennison (Charles Dance) and the dashing chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), who consider Turing to be an insensitive and demanding eccentric. Unfazed by the criticism, he assembles a team of unlikely cryptographers including the brilliant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Together with Alexander, the team must race to solve the world's most difficult puzzle. Turing's "Universal Machine" will do just that, becoming the forerunner of the modern computer, and ushering in a new age of warfare. But the invention will also leave Turing with a problem he cannot solve: his closeted sexuality and the home invasion which exposes it.

Imitation doesn't get all the facts right, as most Hollywood biopics favor entertainment over reality; for that, you'll have to check out Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma.” Director Morten Tyldum has made a slicker, shinier film that has "Oscar Bait" written all over it, thanks in part to Cinematographer Oscar Faura's beautifully-shot England. Surrounding it is surprising bits of levity that are done so well it makes one can easily skip the inconsistencies: a hilarious sequence where Turing writes to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and who in return grants him full command of the team, and several enjoyable Sheldon Copper-like moments of disbelief by Turing, as his awkwardness comes face-to-face against Dennison's tough war persona.

Jumping back and forth between three periods, we see the younger Turing (played by Alex Lawther) enduring unbelievable taunting at a private school, and then forward after the War as Cumberbatch deals with his closeted homosexuality. Most of the production however is centered around Bletchley Park in London between 1940-1944, where a radio manufacturing estate had been transformed into breaking Enigma's code. But it's 1951 that exposes Turing's lifestyle and perhaps hurts the most to watch. Here, his achievements have been deemed top secret and end up counting for nothing when a nosy cop exposes Turing's already fragile ego, sending him over the edge. And although Queen Elizabeth did exonerate him last year, Imitation exposes another dark secret in an era that's frankly been glorified as The Greatest Generation.

Everyone knows my utter disdain for Knightley, whose mousy disposition ruined Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Laggies, and Begin Again. She somewhat redeems herself in Imitation, thriving in the period piece genre that might have been made for her. For all the Sherlock comparisons he's receiving, Cumberbatch manages to add another layer here that's both understated but powerful - he instantly makes you want to like him, especially when his secret is exposed after the war. Mark Strong turns in yet another great spy performance (check him out in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as the head of the at-that-time unknown MI-6; his sequences with Cumberbatch are among the best here, thanks to Writer Graham Moore's strong, breezy script. But he also presents several biting issues for us to consider. Once Enigma was broken, the team decided not to release their news, knowing the Germans would change the code; their decision has been the subject of discussion for years, including their infamous decision to let the town of Coventry burn in a bombing. For the uninitiated, this sort of moral dilemma moves the story into new territory during a very good third act, and isn't the last one our characters will wrestle against.

There's certainly another film here that demands to be told, but Tyldum favors the personal story of Turing and not the conundrum faced by his team. The future in which we live came from this great mind, but history has only recently decided whether he should be revered or hated for his actions and personality. Moral ribbons like these run through great film, challenging our notions and encouraging both discussion and further investigation.

The Imitation Game succeeds on so many levels that it's easy to miss the inaccuracies which pervade Tyldum's version of history, but if it encourages moviegoers to research them, all the better. Cumberbatch is crafting an amazing resume, and he should receive a nomination for his efforts. Alan Turing was a complex character, someone whom no machine could ever crack. Thankfully, his biopic affords us a moment to try.

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking and has a runtime of 114 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


A very thoughtful and bewildering drama about a man who was meant to do great things in a world that was not ready to accept his eccentricities.

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