The true life story of Alan Turing is much stranger, sadder and more troubling than the version of it on view in The Imitation Game, Morton Tyldum’s handsome but overlaundered biopic. Turing was the British mathematician and cryptanalyst whose team helped crack the Nazis’ theretofore-unbreakable Enigma code with a machine that would become a prototype for the modern computer. A few years after his team was instrumental in hastening the Allies’ victory in WWII, Turing was arrested for the crime of being a practicing homosexual under Britain’s then-draconian anti-sodomy law. Given the choice of prison time or chemical castration, he chose the latter, and two years later committed suicide at the age of 41.
The Imitation Game’s script, adapted by first-time screenwriter Graham Moore from a 1983 biography by Andrew Hodges, deals with the harrowing end of its subject’s life only in a brief flash of onscreen text before the credits. After the carefully calibrated uplift of the last two hours, it would have seemed discordant to end on the image of the lifelong misfit Turing—played with fierce but restrained intensity by a never-better Benedict Cumberbatch—poisoning himself with a cyanide-laced apple. A recent inquest suggests that Turing’s death might possibly have been an accident, but this film sticks with the prevailing theory that he committed suicide, though the method goes discreetly unmentioned. It’s telling that The Imitation Game chooses to elide this jarring detail, ending instead on images from an earlier moment of triumph and celebration.
You may cry spoiler alert! if you’re not already familiar with the grim facts of Turing’s final days. But it’s precisely this movie’s treatment of the man’s tragically foreshortened life as grist for the prestige-picture mill—plot twists, dramatic climaxes, and life lessons neatly in place—that irks me. The Imitation Game doesn’t do right by the complex and often unlovable man it purports to be about, nor by the war he helped to win, the technology he invented, or the gay-rights history of which his persecution is a part. This film about one of the past century’s smartest humans at times treats its own audience like a classroom of remedial learners.
The Imitation Game will eventually toggle, with more ambition than grace, among three separate timeframes, but it begins in the early ‘50s, with two cops investigating a break-in at Turing’s Manchester home. Nothing appears to have been taken from the premises—a fact which, together with Turing’s abrasive and ungracious manner, arouses the curiosity of Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), a cop assigned to the case. “I think Alan Turing’s hiding something,” Nock declares to his partner, in a robust candidate for the worst biopic line of 2014. The cop’s suspicions are borne out when he discovers that the British government’s file on Turing’s wartime years is entirely blank.
“Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” Alan Turing’s only friend at boarding school tells him in one of several flashbacks to the mathematician’s early teen years. (Young Turing is played by Alex Lawther, his first crush by Jack Bannon.) It would seem too clunky a slogan to bear recycling, but Turing will later repeat it more or less verbatim to Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the crossword-puzzle prodigy who becomes the only female member of his wartime codebreaking team and, briefly, his fiancée. The bulk of the film concentrates on the early war years, when Turing was a very young Cambridge math prodigy trying to convince a stiff-backed Royal Navy officer (Charles Dance) to give him a spot on the elite cryptography team working to break the Enigma code. Once he’s installed, Turing’s arrogance and imperviousness to such basic social strategies as humor and camaraderie puzzle both his employer and his colleagues–a top-secret gathering of Britain’s finest puzzle-solving minds, headed up by the dashing and socially adroit chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). Because the code is changed by the Germans every night at midnight, no progress can be made on its decryption—until the emotionally disconnected, work-obsessed, possibly autistic Turing is put in charge of the team by no less an authority than Winston Churchill.
Though the entire middle section of the film is concerned with the goings-on in Hut 8 in the top-secret Bletchley Park research facility, there’s very little exploration of what precisely Turing and his men (and one woman) are doing day-to-day in their feverish calculations. It’s apparent that the wall-sized machine Turing creates to churn through the many millions of possible letter and number combinations of the Nazi code must function as some sort of proto-computer, but no scene clearly lays out the machine’s design and function, even in simplified fashion. I’d have welcomed such an explanation, if only to have something to think about during the many scenes of knob-twiddling. What new insights did Turing bring to the field of codebreaking, and just how did his invention lay the groundwork for modern digital technology? We never get the chance to even try to understand what’s going on in Turing’s head as he scribbles and tinkers away (though if you want to try, this essay on Turing by a 17-year-old British mathematician was comprehensible even to someone who can’t reliably calculate a tip). Instead, scene after scene reminds us that Turing is really, really smart, so smart that all these other smart people can barely grasp what he’s thinking, so why should we even try? This abdication from any attempt to convey the substance of Turing’s innovations does the film’s late hero a disservice by turning his genius into a hazy abstraction.
Despite my personal distaste for The Imitation Game—an example of the kind of crowd-pleasing, vaguely progressive Anglophilic drama the Weinstein Company loves to shepherd through awards season—there are things to admire in this polished, tasteful, beautifully acted film. Cumberbatch, who’s been exploring a character on the spectrum for years now in the BBC’s Sherlock, takes Turing even further down the path of prickly who-does-this-guy-think-he-is asociality; if the screenplay’s characterization of its irascible hero is occasionally too cute, the actor keeps its excesses in check. And though she isn’t given enough to do other than stand for womankind in general, Knightley’s stubbornly independent mathematician gets one terrific scene in which her character finally tells off the emotionally clueless Turing.
But as the Hut 8 team’s work advances, the painful ethical decisions they’re forced to make get glossed over far too quickly in the rush to a triumphant V-E Day montage. Throughout The Imitation Game, there’s a sense the filmmaker is trying to shield viewers from the story’s most difficult parts—whether it’s the horrors of war, the technical complexity of the Enigma code and its solution, or the bleakness of Alan Turing’s final fate. I wish Tyldum had trusted the audience enough to let us in on the worst. It would have made his movie so much better.