Film review: ‘The Imitation Game’ is a terrific thriller, but fails as a character study

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) defies authority in the riveting The Imitation Game.
Mike D'Angelo

Three stars

The Imitation Game Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode. Directed by Morten Tyldum. Rated PG-13. Now playing.

Ostensibly, the title of The Imitation Game, a biopic about famed mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing, refers to a thought experiment Turing devised while musing about what we now call artificial intelligence. The idea was that if a computer could successfully mimic a human being, so well that a human judge couldn’t tell the difference, it would be hard to deny that the machine was thinking. Thing is, though, this concept is barely even mentioned in the movie. The real imitation game, as seen onscreen, is played by Turing himself, who finds that he can’t achieve his goals unless he mimics normal human behavior.

Those goals are pretty damn important, too. Though the film jumps around in time, most of it is set during World War II, when Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was drafted to assist in England’s effort to break the Nazis’ diabolical Enigma cipher, which changed daily and resisted all simple brute-force attempts at a solution. Heading up a team of the country’s best minds, including crossword-puzzle addict Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Turing builds a huge machine, now considered one of the forerunners of the modern computer, to tackle the problem. But it’s up to Joan to show him how to befriend the men working for him, who initially find him so cold, bizarre and alienating that he can’t command their loyalty and respect.

Previous fictionalized Turing stories, like Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code, focused primarily on Turing’s homosexuality, which was then (if acted upon) a criminal offense; Turing was arrested for “gross indecency” in 1952 and spent two years receiving hormone treatments in lieu of jail, which may have led him to commit suicide. The Imitation Game doesn’t ignore this, but Cumberbatch’s performance seems more determined to place Turing somewhere on the autism spectrum, emphasizing his propensity for taking all speech literally (he perceives “Alan, we’re all heading out to lunch” as unnecessary information rather than as an invitation) and general social awkwardness. Consequently, the film doesn’t really work as a character study, coming across as vaguely anachronistic—Turing crossed with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. As a superficial code-breaking thriller, however, it works like gangbusters, successfully condensing a mammoth undertaking (which actually involved many nations, notably Poland) so that an audience of non-experts can vaguely understand it. For better and worse, this is The Simplification Game.

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