Cumberbatch Anchors Uneven "Imitation Game"

Alan Turing was the brains behind the British team of mathematicians that cracked the Nazi Enigma machine, singlehandedly turning World War II in the Allies’ favor. It’s not hard to imagine a crackling wartime thriller centered on Turing – intrigue, action, and suspense pooling together into a race against time, with Hitler’s brutal march through Europe serving as a backdrop. All are tailor-made ingredients for a prime, edge-of-your-seat historical thriller – one that moviegoers will have to keep waiting for because “The Imitation Game” isn’t it. For better and worse.

Based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing – The Enigma, Graham Moore’s screenplay submits that its hero wasn’t waging one war, but two. One of bombs and gun powder, yes, but another of deep personal turmoil, a fight that wouldn’t be won in his lifetime.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC’s “Sherlock”) was a gay man living in mid-twentieth century Britain, as closeted as the law required him to be. In a culture of intolerance passed off as stuffiness, homosexual behavior – real or imagined – was met with swift, harsh reprisals. That duality – a life spent trying to uncover secrets while wrestling with his own – isn’t lost on director Morten Tyldum, who turns the innermost workings of Moore’s screenplay into an appropriately bitter pill. In turn, what might have been a historical epic becomes a quiet, necessarily foggy character study with Cumberbatch giving as forceful a performance as ever.

But the film’s gentle humanism is an asset never fully realized, enveloping Turing’s historical significance to the point that his heroism becomes background noise.

After an intriguing opening sequence that depicts the mathematician’s postbellum life, the film travels back ten years to the heart of World War II. The Allies’ codebreaking has turned into a futile guessing exercise – they face an unfathomable 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations. With time working against them, the ever-prickly Turing is cajoled into creating a contraption of his own to topple the great Enigma machine. The science depicted here is fascinating at first, but quickly turns vague, relayed via flashing numbers, the crunch of machinery, and pissing matches between geniuses.

Matthew Goode (“Watchmen”) plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s reluctant co-worker and chief rival. Keira Knightley (“Begin Again”) co-stars as Joan Clarke, another fellow mathematician and Turing’s girlfriend. She’s quietly the movie’s lynchpin. Strong, compassionate, brilliant. Almost everything Turing could want from a companion.

The secrecy of Turing’s codebreaking operation proves sturdy enough to deprive him of the fame he so deserves but porous enough to destroy him through alleged personal indiscretions. Thereby “The Imitation Game” proves a moving portrait of a victim of gross social injustice – yet one whose historical significance is reduced to analogy.

As the title of Andrew Hodges’ book makes clear, Alan Turing is the enigma of the piece. He’s the focal point above all else. On that front, job well done. But as an account of a war-winning technological breakthrough, “The Imitation Game” is a nonstarter. It glosses over what exactly made Alan Turing so brilliant, resulting in a monochromatic picture that could have been – should have been – told in bright, striking color. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing with all his might, but it’s not enough to overcome an uneven screenplay that isn’t sure how to bind its two halves.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 28, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Graham Moore
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking)