THE IMITATION GAME begins with a grim piece of foreshadowing that belies the fast-paced, Swing Kids-meets-John le Carré tone of what's to come. It's the 1950s, the police are at the door, and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is on his knees in his lab, sweeping up traces of cyanide after a mysterious break-in. That bit's for the folks who know their history. Everyone else, come along:
Turing was a mathematician whose work laid the foundation for modern computing. His team was instrumental in breaking previously unbreakable German codes during WWII, part of a highly classified project that remained confidential until years after his death.
The bulk of The Imitation Game is set during WWII, as Turing and his team of geniuses race to build a machine that can crack the world's most sophisticated code. Top-secret cryptography comes with its own set of personnel challenges (long hours, Russian spies), and Turing, while brilliant, is profoundly ill equipped to handle them. He's great with machines, but he has to learn how to work with people, see?
A zippy nostalgia suffuses these segments of The Imitation Game. Director Morten Tyldum makes air raids look like promotional posters, bombed cities like postcards of ancient ruins. This is the war as experienced by "half a dozen crossword enthusiasts in a tiny village in the South of England," as Turing puts it. Though their mission had life and death implications for thousands, their setting was bucolic, their safety relatively assured.
The Imitation Game saves its real stakes for Turing himself. Flashbacks reveal his childhood as a tiny, brutally bullied genius at boarding school; flash-forwards to the 1950s gradually reveal Turing's future, and his treatment at the hands of his own government. It's an effective structure: When thoroughly grounded in Turing's influence and his contributions, the details of his life are even more heartbreaking.
Much is made of Turing's awkwardness—his inability to understand social cues, his indifference to social niceties—but the film doesn't generate much excitement around his actual work. The Imitation Game could be a little wonkier, a little more concerned with the workings of the machine and less with how the machine is reflected in the man. But the film doesn't ask much of its audience's intelligence. Plot points are telegraphed and the script is leaden at times—as when, regrettably, the screenwriter stuffs the mantra "Sometimes it's the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects" into the mouth of a British schoolboy. And a title card before the end credits can't resist reminding us that the legacy of Turing machines lives on: "Today, we call them computers." You don't say.
Fortunately, Cumberbatch's performance transcends everything trite and contrived about the script. In Turing, Cumberbatch creates a character that, on some level, is desperate for connection, yet completely incapable of making it—he's boxed in by his intelligence, baffled by his emotions. The script occasionally forces comparisons between Turing and a machine; yet Cumberbatch's sensitive, intelligent performance is deeply human.
The Imitation Game is a big, sepia-toned war drama designed to make holiday audiences feel things. What it makes us feel, though, is not War Is Hell or Brotherhood Is Eternal or Human Spirit Triumphs Against Impossible Odds. It makes us feel the acute shittiness of a world in which a gay genius kills himself (spoiler) because his sexuality was criminalized by the very government that should have protected and celebrated him. It's the kind of feeling that makes you want to be a little bit nicer to the people around you—a modest end, but a worthy one.