Now pay attention, chaps. The mission is to decipher the formula for winning as many Oscars as humanly possible. All we have to go on are a few items of random data – nostalgic wartime setting, posh Brit accents, persecuted homosexual with a speech impediment. It’s going to be a tricky one but I think we might just pull it off. Any questions?
One question from the back might be to ask how such seemingly calculated Oscar-bait as The Imitation Game has managed to be such a gripping and genuinely moving drama. For many, the answer will consist of just two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. Adding to his gallery of anguished geniuses – Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, Star Trek’s Khan, Stephen Hawking (in a BBC television biopic) – Cumberbatch masterfully zips himself into the skin of a man who, for many years, was not only an unsung hero of the Second World War but, until his official pardon in 2013, also a convicted and squalidly disgraced “criminal”.
Alan Turing may have been bundled into obscurity both because of his sexuality and his highly classified work, but few people will be unaware of him now. Nor of how he played such a vital role in deflecting England’s inevitable defeat; how he perfected a machine for cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code and paved the way for the modern computer; and how, after ensuring the defeat of history’s vilest gang of bigots, he was himself crushed by a politely English form of that same bigotry.
Given this last sickening irony, it might have been welcome if The Imitation Game had been queerer with a much bigger Q, making a more explicit link between Turing’s codebreaking and the way criminalised gay men were forced to create their own secret code just to breathe the same air as their “normal” compatriots.
Indeed, it might have been more explicit full stop, unapologetically celebrating Turing’s sexuality instead of deflecting it into a sexless romance between this socially bumbling oddball and Joan Clarke, the brainiest of the Bletchley girls, played by Keira Knightley. (Apparently, Turing was more outgoing and more out.)
Unfortunately, this evasiveness is part of the overall calculation, which includes exaggerating the already jaw-dropping events for extra dramatic clout. At one over-egged point, one of the codebreaking team discovers his brother’s ship is about to be sunk and is forbidden from raising the alarm.
All that aside, though, this is a hugely involving and entertaining thriller-cum-character study, robustly directed by Morten (Headhunters) Tyldum and powered by a typically multi-layered, engagingly quirky performance from Cumberbatch.
Turing and his team of mathematicians, chess players and crossword experts don’t exactly make for obviously heroic material. It’s a blitzkerig of braincells they’re launching at the enemy, and give or take the occasional visit from the Luftwaffe, they’re hardly in any physical danger. But the high stakes they’re playing for are made grippingly clear, and Tyldum wrings maximum suspense from the whirring cogitations of “Christopher”, as Turing calls his towering proto-computer. Upping the dramatic ante is an intriguing subplot involving the poisonous atmosphere spread about by the men later known as the Cambridge Spies.
There is also a minor revelation, an absolute gem of a performance, to be found amid the solid list of supporting players (Mark Strong as a suavely menacing spy chief, Matthew Goode as a charming rival boffin, Charles Dance as a coldly blimpish officer, Rory Kinnear as the sympathetic policeman investigating Turing’s “improprieties”). The story is mostly grounded in the events of 1940-41, but also flashes forward to 1950s Manchester and back to a 1920s public school where we find young Turing discovering the miracles of the mind as well as the insupportable cruelties of life. Playing him in these scenes is a relatively new actor called Alex Lawther. His performance is stunning and utterly heartbreaking.
The Imitation Game is on general release.
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.