“The Imitation Game” raises the stakes

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Sometimes, it takes a different kind of person to change the world. Even the least likely individuals are capable of great things that nobody else dreams of doing. Yet they are often taken for granted and unacknowledged for their efforts.

This is the focus of The Imitation Game, a historical thriller and biopic of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and scientist who worked for the British government during World War II.

Directed by Morten Tyldum, the film shows Turing’s interest in coding as a student in boarding school and his scholarly achievements, laying the groundwork for modern computers and eventual downfall at the hands of the British government.

Beginning in 1951, a burglary at Turing’s house results in a police investigation of his personal life, which is slowly uncovered as the story progresses. From an early age, he shows talent in mathematics and writing code, which leads to his attempts of creating a sentient computing device.

In 1941, Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, leaves his university post to work as part of a secret team of code breakers at Bletchley Park. The Nazis have been using an “Enigma device” that sends coded messages but changes every midnight, which further complicates translation attempts.

Despite a difficult start, Turing manages to gain respect and admiration among his fellow coworkers. He also brings a talented young woman named Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, onto the team after she impresses him by deciphering a puzzle. As time passes, they strive to crack the German codes and help the Allies win the war.

Unknown to everyone, Turing is trying to hide his homosexuality, fearing the possibility of being exposed and prosecuted by anti-gay British laws. He attempts to form a relationship with Joan and makes an awkward proposal of marriage, which she accepts. However, Turing has misgivings about living a lie, and he ends the engagement after confessing the truth about his orientation.

Cumberbatch steals the show with his intelligent, quirky yet likeable performance. As Turing, he has a distinct set of mannerisms and nuances that make the character brilliant, difficult and humorous at times, depending on the occasion. His seeming ability to not take a joke provides some light, comedic moments in the film’s first half.

While viewers might draw similarities to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, Cumberbatch’s Turing is shown to be a different character; he shows vulnerability and desperation when struggling on professional and personal levels.

As Joan Clarke, Knightley provides a subdued, thoughtful counterpart to Cumberbatch’s Turing. By playing a woman in a largely male-driven operation, she has to hold her own against the other code breakers. While the focus of the story is on Turing, Joan does get the chance to prove herself to the men. Ultimately, Knightley brings a sense of idealism to the role.

Tyldum’s direction of the film keeps Turing at the heart of the plot. Based on Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, Graham Moore’s screenplay manages to balance 20th century history with the human element of the story. Similar to his composing work on The King’s Speech, Alexandre Desplat’s classical score provides a deep, pensive feeling to the film’s atmosphere.

Although the story is largely true, the film takes liberties with historical accuracy. For instance, Turing’s decision to name the code-breaking device “Christopher” after his childhood friend and unrequited lover is pure Hollywood invention; the machine was really called “the Bombe.”

Similarly, the nature of Turing’s relationship with his superiors is greatly fictionalized; they harbor a strong dislike of Turing and attempt to fire him when his machine fails to produce results. Furthermore, a subplot about one of the code breakers being a Soviet agent is added; in reality, Turing and the agent never worked alongside each other.

Curiously, the film has been criticized for allegedly downplaying Turing’s homosexuality and exaggerating his relationship with Clarke. While certain conversations and scenes were invented, the story does acknowledge Turing was gay in an era where homosexuality was criminalized, but it is not the overriding point of the film.

The Imitation Game ranks as one of the best films of 2014. Both Cumberbatch and Knightley deliver compelling performances. Special credit must also be given to Tyldum and Moore for their part in bringing the story to the big screen. One can hope that Alan Turing would approve of the final product.