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Cracking Code: The Imitation Game (Review)

The Imitation Game delves into the enigmatic person of Alan Turing

The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game

The night before a screening of The Imitation Game, I’d seen Alejandro González Iñárritu’s manic, “single shot” Birdman, one of those experimental movies that pushes unrelentingly at the boundaries of modern cinema and, in the process, leaves us exhausted without quite knowing why.

Imagine my relief, therefore, at The Imitation Game, which is about as formulaic a drama as they come. It does what it needs to do, goes where it needs to go, evokes the emotions it needs to evoke, and does so without ever testing our intellectual limits. It’s not an unintelligent film by any extent. It’s just traditionally manipulative. And on that night, at least, manipulation had never felt so welcome.

The Imitation Game delves into the life of Alan Turing, the socially-arrested British mathematician and cryptanalyst who helped his country crack Enigma, the indecipherable Nazi coded-message machine (you can see one on display at D.C.’s Spy Museum). Turing’s efforts helped bring an end to World War II, and the machine he developed to crack the Nazi code ushered in the age of the modern computer.

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Adapted by Graham Moore from the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the screenplay has been kicking around Hollywood for years, unproduced, until actor du jour Benedict Cumberbatch agreed to play Turing. With his remote, chilly repose, and vague, slightly off-kilter visage, Cumberbatch gives a spectacular yet unshowy performance. It’s deep, quiet, pained, secret, allowing only fleeting glimpses into the soul of the difficult, driven genius. Of course, those who know anything about gay history know Turing was homosexual at a time when such acts were illegal in Britain and carried severe penalties. The penalty in Turing’s case — hormonal emasculation — is largely attributed to the reason for his eventual suicide.

The Imitation Game

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) keeps a firm, steady hold on the narrative, unearthing small yet critical emotional touchstones throughout. Turing’s boyhood crush on a classmate, which later fuels his obsession to create artificial intelligence. Turing’s almost-human relationship with brilliant female mathematician Jane Clarke (Keira Knightly, doing her best one-note feisty). His combative relationship with his colleagues at Bletchley Park (including Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey‘s Allen Leech), where they toiled in secret to decode messages from a machine that changed its cipher daily.

Tyldum really shines when dramatizing the “eureka moment” that allowed Turing’s machine to finally work. It’s a stunningly constructed sequence, gripping and thrilling, and is followed by a headlong plummet into a moral hell of unimaginable, yet necessary, consequence. Still, one has to wonder what a more assured, adventurous director have done with the material.

In the end, The Imitation Game is a deep, absorbing look into the mind of a natural born outlier. You can’t help but walk out of the theater feeling as though you’ve just seen one of the more important stories about one of the more important people — gay or straight — of our time. — Randy Shulman

The Imitation Game () is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 114 minutes. It opens Friday, Dec. 12 at area theaters.

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