The Imitation Game - 'a polished and efficient drama, but there are a few problems'
In one sense The Imitation Game is an odd sort of a film, a tense thriller whose outcome is never in doubt, and a period drama based on events that have been hashed over many times before.
There have been several TV shows about the heroic wonks of Bletchley Park, and a fanciful 2001 movie, Enigma, blended their code-breaking exploits with extracurricular sexual shenanigans.
This film has a good deal more going for it than that, and sticks closer to the stories of the real people who achieved miracles in a quiet Victorian mansion in Buckinghamshire.
And The Imitation Game is both a thriller and a tragedy, because its hero is Alan Turing, a brilliant, taciturn mathematician and scientist whose life was blighted by his misunderstood sexuality.
Though most of the film is set during World War Two, we first meet Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the early 1950s, when policemen arrive at his Manchester home to investigate an apparent burglary.
Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) is perplexed by what he finds, because although the scientist's house has been completely turned over, nothing seems to be missing, and the victim himself is rude, and unperturbed. "What I could use now," he tells Nock, "is not a bobby but a good cleaning lady."
When he digs deeper, Nock finds that Turing has absolutely no war record, and claims he worked in a munitions factory in Buckinghamshire for the duration. He also finds out he's a homosexual (in those unenlightened times a serious criminal offence), so he brings Alan in for questioning, and gets to hear his extraordinary story.
An Oxford Fellow and Princeton PhD, Turing fails to impress military intelligence chief Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) when he's called for an interview at Bletchley Park.
Denniston has been ordered by Churchill to establish a team of scientists and linguists with the aim of cracking the Enigma Code, a constantly changing and supposedly unbreakable cypher used by the Germans to convey information about military movements and attacks.
Denniston instantly detests Turing, who's arrogant, insensitive and condescending to those less bright than himself, which is practically everyone. But Winston Churchill wants him, and so does the sinister MI6 boss Stewart Menzies (played with suave charm by Mark Strong), so Alan joins the elite code-breaking group led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), an Anglo-Irish cryptanalyst.
Alan quickly gets his colleagues' backs up by dismissing their conventional attempts to break the codes, and demanding resources to build a giant machine that would sort through German communiqués at super speeds in search of common threads. No one believes his machine, a kind of early computer, will ever work, and Denniston tries to get him fired. But Churchill and MI6 again intervene, and Turing constructs his great, whirring beast in a shed at Bletchley, and watches anxiously as it goes to work.
Turing clearly has some sort of disorder that prevents him from reading the emotions of other human beings, and Keira Knightley plays the woman who became his conduit to the rest of humankind.
Cryptanalyst Joan Clarke is just 24 when she joins the team. She and Alan become close, and she's initially delighted when he proposes, but she soon realises that a normal romantic relationship will not be on the cards.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as a wounded and contradictory man, a supremely confident scientist and intellectual who's all at sea when it comes to people, and is traumatised by the homosexual urges he knows could destroy him socially. He's very good for the most part, and Graham Moore's script plays Turing's phenomenal rudeness for laughs.
The Imitation Game is a polished and efficient drama, and looks great on a comparatively modest budget of £15 million, especially the loving reconstruction of Alan's beautiful machine.
But there are a few problems, like the clunky expository newsreels, and the attempt to build dramatic tension where not much really exists. Because we know that Turing and friends did break the code, and that Adolf Hitler lost the war.