Based on the real life story of legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing, the film portrays the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team of code-breakers at Britain's top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, during the darkest days of World War II.
I just watched The Imitation Game (2014) and I was blown away. It’s bloody brilliant. The writing, the cinematography, the direction and the score are all excellent. But what really lifts it into “amazing” territory is the acting. Everyone is terrific—the entire cast. Subtle facial expressions, pitch-perfect body language and vocal delivery…It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last few years, right up there with The Theory of Everything. It’s no surprise that it was nominated for everything under the sun, and won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley earned their nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress for their portrayals of mathematical geniuses Alan Turing and Joan Clarke, and if Cumberbatch hadn’t been up against Eddie Redmayne’s stunning portrayal of another mathematical prodigy, Stephen Hawking, I suspect he would have won.
There’s a lot of interest now in the war work at Bletchley Park, but too many people still don’t know who Alan Turing was. Essentially, he’s the father of modern computers; he first described the principle of the modern computer (which he called the Universal Turing Machine) in 1936. During WWII, he designed and built the “bombe”, an electromechanical device used to crack the Nazi’s Enigma codes. After the war, he designed one of the earliest stored-program computers, the ACE. But because his war work and even the ACE were classified, he remained almost unknown outside mathematical and computer-theory circles until the mid-1980s, when a play starring Derek Jacobi brought his life and work to life.
It’s hard to compare the two performances. (Jacobi’s was filmed, and I’ve seen it; it’s very good.) Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch capture some of Turing’s mannerisms as described by those who knew him. Jacobi plays him with a pronounced stutter; Cumberbatch merely hints at the stutter with hesitations, blocks, and occasional repeated words. But it’s his portrayal of a brilliant, isolated, intensely driven man, one well aware of his genius but also of his difficulty connecting with others, that makes Cumberbatch’s performance so compelling.
And screenwriter Graham Moore’s decision to position Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) almost as a secondary protagonist was inspired. Knightley’s character humanizes both the film and Turing himself; at one point, she tells him flatly, “If you want to solve your puzzle, you’re going to need all the help you can get. And they are not going to help you if they do not like you.” After which, he does make an effort, in an awkward sort of way, to be friendly. Just for the record, Clarke really was the sole woman working in Hut 8; she and Turing did become friends and were even engaged at one point, though their engagement was eventually broken off. I don’t know if the reasons suggested in the film were behind their engagement in real life, but it was certainly plausible within the film.
The Imitation Game does take some liberties with historical facts, but it conveys the urgency behind the work at Bletchley Park: the desperate need to crack the German codes. In 1939 and 40, the Allies (mostly Britain at that point) were losing the war, and they knew it. Cracking Enigma (and the later Lorenz code) gave the Allies the edge they needed to win. It’s estimated that the work done by Turing and his colleagues shortened the war by between at least two years, perhaps as much as four, and saved between 12 million and 14 million lives. But The Imitation Game is much more than a war movie; it’s a terrific ensemble film and a moving portrayal of an unhappy and all-too-human genius.
If you haven’t seen The Imitation Game yet, go rent it. Now.