By Jim Brunzell III
Best-known as the fast-talking modern detective Sherlock Holmes on PBS’s Sherlock, British actor Benedict Cumberbatch has seemingly become a household name overnight (notwithstanding his mouthful of a name)—and both your mom and your best friend’s newest celebrity crush. Now he plays another heroic brainiac, Alan Turing, the legendary WWII code breaker, mathematician, closeted gay man, and alleged spy in The Imitation Game. Cumberbatch is enough reason to see his outstanding performance in the film opening this week in Austin movie theaters.
Turing’s story is significant not only to LBGT history but world history in creating his machine, a precursor of what years later become known to us as a “computer,” that helped the Allies break the German code and end the war.
This is not the first attempt at telling Turing’s story on screen. There was the 1996 BBC television film Breaking The Code, starring Sir Derek Jacobi, and director Michael Apted’s criminally under-seen theatrical 2001 film Enigma (starring Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott with a script by playwright Tom Stoppard), which was not directly about Turing but heavily inspired by WWII code breakers. However, this is Hollywood’s first crack at bringing Turing’s gallant story to an American and worldwide audience. The Imitation Game has been gaining Academy Award buzz since winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and notching five Golden Globe nominations, including one for Cumberbatch for Best Actor.
In the opening moments of The Imitation Game, a soft-spoken Turing speaks in hushed voiceover: “Listen carefully and watch closely.” It sets the tone of the film, as we see Turing in custody being questioned by a police officer who has brought him in after his apartment has been ransacked. The officer wants to know, what did you do during the war?
What unfolds over the jam-packed two-hour film are three separate stories spread over 25 years. In the first of many time shifts, we jump to 1939, where an eager Turing approaches Britain’s Bletchley Park to inquire about working at a top-secret WWII facility helping to crack the German cipher machine, known as “Enigma.” Even though he cannot speak German, he is brought on, and works alone rather than helping his other code breakers. Much to his co-workers’ disapproval (including Matthew Goode of Watchmen and Match Point and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech), Turing reaches out for others in a newspaper crossword, in a cryptic code no less, and recruits Joan Clarke (an excellent Keira Knightley), a single woman working as a secretary who might be smarter than Turing. Later on, in efforts to hide his homosexuality from his co-workers, he proposes to Joan, in an attempt to keep her from leaving the project.
In another flashback, a young, awkward Turing at school in 1927 meets presumably his only friend, Christopher. He is the person who turned Turing onto puzzles and crosswords as both boys excelled at mathematics and passed “coded” notes around in class. These early boyhood glimpses of Turing signal his first physical attraction toward his friend, only to be left devastated, shortly after becoming friends.
The “eureka” moment in The Imitation Game comes just over the film’s halfway point: figuring out why Turing’s machine has not cracked any of the Nazis messages. They celebrate their discovery but then realize they must keep their solution a secret. Alas, what should have been the most crucial and gripping sequence in the film comes across as melodramatic and lackluster as a daytime soap opera.
The third act of The Imitation Game proves to be the best section of the film, where Turing’s conflicted character is developed, and his stoic façade shifts from anxious to gloomy. Rather than his machine, he becomes the true “enigma” as he continues to hide more secrets than one human could handle.
The film, unfortunately, never quite achieves a true emotional core. It glosses over many key facts, notably a single scene of probing Turing as a spy, being picked up for “gross indecency,” never shown only mentioned. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) sustains solid pacing throughout, never rushing the story despite a wobbly script and a questionable editing scheme (a straightforward narrative might have improved the film). But Cumberbatch and Knightley are both terrific, and Tyldum delivers some unexpected surprises and tension in the third act. This is Cumberbatch’s film and he should receive an Oscar nomination for the way he reveals Turing’s tortured process of getting his machine to work.
First-time screenwriter Graham Moore makes Cumberbatch’s Turing more of a private figure whereas author Andrew Hodges’ “Alan Turing: The Enigma” 1983 biography seems to have made Turing more open about his sexuality with his colleagues. Moore’s script seems to have glossed over some important aspects in Turing’s personal life. Turing hid his sexuality throughout his life from his co-workers (one does discover and lets it be known to Turing) and Joan, yet we never see him flirt with another man, nor do we see him out in secret with anyone. It is offered as a footnote rather than being further explored as a secondary storyline. It destroyed him and led to his death. Rather than serve jail time for his “gross indecency,” he was given synthetic oestrogen (better known as “the chemical cure”), and later was found dead in an apparent suicide from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41.
In a time when being gay was a crime, Turing’s story, and more important, his personal life, in The Imitation Game does not feel completely solved, rather unfinished. Nonetheless, the new film cements Turing’s significance in LGBT history as a pioneering and landmark figure.
Would you be able to keep your sexuality under wraps?
film, machines, code, WWII, history, secrets, heroes
Now playing in Austin theaters