04 January 2015

A Machine and an Enigma

"The Imitation Game"     ★★★★

A Review by Kevin Powers

"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

The greatness of director Morten Tyldum's "The Imitation Game" as a whole didn't hit me until the very end. Going in, my want to see this movie had waned a bit, and I was expecting just another WWII-period drama. I knew very little of this true story, had read no reviews, and had no expectations other than I was sure I was in for a great bit of acting from British actor, Benedict Cumberbatch.

All expectations were exceeded.

The most striking thing about this movie is its structure. The screenplay by Graham Moore from the biography by Andrew Hodges is incredibly smart and well-crafted. It builds and builds and builds adding layer after layer as the film plays on, covering three distinct, and pivotal, periods of our hero's life. Our hero is a Cambridge mathematician named Alan Turing.

We are first introduced to Alan Turing (Cumberbatch, BBC's "Sherlock") in 1951 in Manchester, England. A robbery has been reported at his residence and two police inspectors come to his home. He dismisses the men quickly from his cluttered flat, filled with chemistry experiments, books, and paperwork. The detectives find Turing cold and off-putting. One of the men, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) believes he's hiding something.

Flashback to 1939, Turing meets with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of HBO's "Game of Thrones") at Bletchley Park in London. World War II has begun, raging through Europe. Again, we understand Turing to be an odd sort, lacking in social skills, unable to pick up on humor and make small talk. Nevertheless, there is no doubt Alan is the man for the job. The job: crack the Nazi enigma machine, which encrypts messages sent back and forth among German forces each day. Each day the code changes, each day Turing and his crew fumble around unable to even begin to crack a code with "159 million million million" combinations.

Turing eventually, and humorously, persuades the Commander to put him in charge much to the chagrin of Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode of Woody Allen's "Match Point"), who had previously been in charge of the project. Turing assembles a team, including Hugh, a female crossword whiz named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) and a few math and linguistics experts.

Tensions ensue over the next couple years as Alan battles himself, his crew, and his bosses, including both Denniston and MI-6 operative Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty") while building "Christopher," a machine that may be able to work through all the possible combinations of Nazi coded messages much more efficiently. Of course, we know this kind of machine these days. But back in 1939, nothing of the sort had been imagined.

Meanwhile, as the war years roll on, we get an incredible gift. We get to know Alan as a child as well, a young teen at boarding school in the early-1920s. He's the sort of kid whose mother describes him as an "odd duck." He can't stand the orange of his carrots and green of his peas to mix. He separates them. He gets bullied. His best, and only, friend Christopher introduces him to a book on codes and ciphers. Young Alan and Christopher share a fondness that only true best friends share. For Alan, it may even be more than that.

Also, we flash forward at certain points back to 1951, where Alan has now been arrested for "indecency" and Detective Nock sits down to hear his story.

I can't hint at some of the developments in character in this movie, but I want you, reader, to let certain revelations surprise and wash over you. The greatness of this movie comes not solely from the wartime code-breaking work but, even more importantly, from what we come to know about Turing and the other characters as the war goes on. I will only say that there are secrets on several levels and that Alan Turing, as the movie poster suggests, is himself an "enigma."

Benedict Cumberbatch's work here is just perfection. I have not been so moved by a performance in a long time. He is an Oscar frontrunner, and, if I had a ballot, he would be my Best Actor pick. He plays Turing with a confident control rarely achieved. He runs the gamut on emotions, playing a man, who certainly would be diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum today, but who also knows happiness, love, and loss. His work with Keira Knightly is likewise, perfect. Her Joan becomes his greatest ally and confidant, and the way this film treats her character is both brave and touching.

As the pieces of this puzzle come together and we begin winning the war, it is only then that we realize that Turing's story has just begun. What we learn about him, in the end, as a man, an inventor, an innovator, a math genius, is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

"The Imitation Game" is not particularly flashy and stands as a pretty standard, good-looking British period piece. But sometimes adequate filmmaking (a combination of directing and editing) is enough, especially when you have a screenplay that is so perfectly crafted and a performance that is equal parts passionate, beautiful, and unique.


  1. He IS such a good actor. I wanted to see this movie for the history, the story (I didn't know but the basics of the story), and Benny! I just thought this movie had a lot of things working for it. As for it being a period piece, it captures the time and looks amazing while doing it. Right now, this is my favorite movie of 2014, but I might need to review everything I have watched!

    1. Benny!? Haha! You're hilarious. And correct. This movie does have a lot that works and works well. Great movie.

  2. Great review! I'm really looking forward to this one. I'm kind of annoyed none of the theaters nearby have gotten it.

    1. Thanks so much! Certainly keep an eye out for it. It's well worth watching.

  3. I really want to see this now. It looked like such an 'awards movie' but one that would be dull and forgettable, but those reviews are hard to ignore, and your exceeded expectations have me all the more intrigued.

    1. It is really just a very well-told, fascinating story, and that was enough. I was very moved by it. Cumberbatch is truly incredible!