Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Imitation Game: What price genius?

The Imitation Game (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for mature content and occasional sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Mankind has an unfortunate tendency to devour its champions. Always has, likely always will.

We’re also not very tolerant of those who are different, whether in appearance or behavior. During times of crisis, such eccentricities are regarded even more suspiciously.

Despite indifference and outright hostility from some of his Bletchley Park colleagues,
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) proceeds doggedly with the creation and
construction of a massive "thinking machine" that he hopes will break the German
"Enigma code" that has frustrated Allied efforts for so long.
Norwegian-born director Morten Tyldum’s handling of The Imitation Game employs shaming and ostracization as dramatic plot points: issues every bit as significant as the WWII-era predicament that brings young mathematician Alan Turing to the unusual code-breaking operation at Buckinghamshire’s Bletchley Park.

As scripted by Graham Moore and depicted by star Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is a social outcast by virtue of his utter obliviousness to decorum and protocol. He affects a level of bland arrogance that infuriates everybody, yet remains utterly bewildered by how he is perceived by others.

This characterization places Turing squarely “on the spectrum,” to acknowledge the phrase du jour ... and I can’t help feeling that this artistic decision may have been propelled more by our current fascination with such characters — think Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, or Cumberbatch’s own modern spin on Sherlock Holmes — than by authenticity.

This film’s opening credits are a bit deceptive, implying that Moore concocted this screenplay on his own. Only when we hit the closing credits can sharp-eyed viewers spot, in tiny print, a reference to Moore’s script being adapted from Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma. And while Hodges drew upon ample sources to confirm Turing’s impatience with bureaucracy and the grinding sluggishness of the military chain of command, Moore’s decision to re-cast this as full-blown autism is ... well ... historically suspect.

That said, it allows Cumberbatch to inhabit another of his fascinating, eccentricity-laden characters: a fresh performance that never ceases to be both fascinating and entertaining. Tyldum clearly recognizes this, choosing to open his film with Turing’s initial interview in the office of Bletchley Park Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). It’s a hilarious, impeccably timed display of rat-a-tat dialogue between an increasingly annoyed Denniston and the calmly indifferent Turing.

Indeed, such unruffled disdain later leads to the film’s funniest line, when one of Turing’s colleagues comments, in the aftermath of a particularly blunt display, “Popular in school, were you?”

Likely not, but that’s hardly the point; Turing’s unlikely presence at Bletchley Park, juxtaposed against the increasingly importance of his work, is what makes this film so engaging.

Turing is a 27-year-old Cambridge scholar when he travels to Bletchley Park in 1939. He journeys amidst chaos: London families are separating at the train station, their children being sent to the greater safety of country surroundings, in anticipation of the blitz to come.

Bletchley’s core mission is to break the impenetrable German “Enigma” code, which has defied all Allied efforts. Until and unless Enigma can be deciphered, the Allies have no way of knowing when or where German planes, ships and u-boats will strike.

Bletchley Park has a captured Enigma machine, but that doesn’t help at all, given its oft-stated capacity for “139 million million” settings. To make matters worse, the Germans alter these settings every 24 hours ... meaning that any code-breaking solution must be swift enough to adapt to each day’s changes.

Turing finds himself among a small cadre of colleagues dominated by the charismatic Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), a chess champion with a flair for probability and a talent for leadership. Trouble is, Turing can’t submit to being told what to do, regardless of the circumstances; while Alexander and the others work the problem one way, Turing closets himself in a corner, sketching and scribbling the details of what soon will become a truly fascinating electromechanical machine.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic does a sensational job with this behemoth of drums, rotors and wiring; look up any photograph of the actual “bombe” — the British device’s actual name — and you’ll see precisely what Turing concocts in his workspace. The notion that anybody could devise such a gadget, and that it could work, almost defies credibility ... and yet that’s precisely what happened.

(But not entirely on his own. Turing was assisted greatly by celebrated British mathematician and Bletchley Park cipher expert Gordon Welchman, whose involvement with breaking Enigma has been overshadowed by Turing ... and who is completely absent in this film.)

Turing dubs this growing monstrosity “Christopher,” in a nod to Christopher Morcom, a boarding school classmate who becomes young Alan’s best friend and protector. We watch this relationship expand during a series of 1928 flashbacks, with Christopher (Jack Bannon) granted the telling gesture of giving the withdrawn, crossword puzzle-obsessed Alan (Alex Lawther, in these scenes) his first book of ciphers.

This relationship with Christopher also establishes the basis for Turing’s homosexuality: a “peculiarity” that was not granted the acceptance gays enjoy today. To that end, Tyldum and Moore employ a framing device for their narrative: a 1952 police station interview with Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear), following Turing’s arrest for “gross indecency.” The film unfolds as Turing tells his story to Nock: a sort of test he has devised and dubbed “The Imitation Game,” as a means of determining whether machines can think.

The core point here is deliciously subtle: Is Turing a man, despite his social ineptness, or a soulless machine? We’re left to judge the answer on the basis of his unfolding story, just as Nock does.

The other key player in this drama is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a vivacious young woman with a flair for mathematics and cryptanalysis. She excels during a “recruitment drive” that Turing orchestrates, and he immediately views her as vital to his work. Unfortunately, Clarke’s conservative parents refuse to permit her to work in an all-male environment, so Turing concocts an elaborate ruse that brings her to Bletchley Park with her parents’ blessing.

Clarke becomes the calming element in Turing’s life, softening the rough edges so that his colleagues begin to receive him with amused forbearance. Here, too, Cumberbatch excels at Turing’s clumsy efforts at peace-making, stammering his way through a badly told joke, but persevering to a punch line that he more or less ruins. But it’s an effort nonetheless, and we cannot help smiling at Cumberbatch’s nervous apprehension, as he looks around the room to see how his gesture has been received.

Knightley’s performance may be a bit too 21st century emancipated, but that just makes her portrayal of Clarke more delightful. She’s spunky and charming, yet capable of erupting with temper whenever challenged by some oblivious man simply because of her gender.

Dance is appropriate haughty and dismissive as the villain of the piece, Denniston forever unwilling to grant Turing the benefit of any doubts. In that regard, Denniston represents standard-issue “movie conflict,” a stereotype that Dance handles with aplomb and angry bite.

Mark Strong has an intriguing supporting role as Stewart Menzies, a mildly sinister MI6 “spook” better able to appreciate Turing’s value to the war effort. Allen Leech, immediately recognized as Tom Branson on TV’s Downton Abbey, plays the genial John Cairncross, the first of Turing’s colleagues to offer what feels like genuine friendship.

The film is greatly enhanced by another of composer Alexandre Desplat’s rich orchestral scores. Desplat weaves several themes throughout the narrative, augmenting and even establishing mood and atmosphere. I truly believe he’ll eventually be regarded with the same respect we currently show John Williams.

This depiction of Turing’s life is gripping both for the significance and gravity of his Bletchley Park activities, and for what happened to him after the war: a sad, shameful fate for a man who served his country with such distinction. Cumberbatch makes Turing an at-times unforgivably flawed yet undeniably noble protagonist: a tragic Shakespearean figure that we admire in spite of himself.

We’ve seen a lot of Bletchley Park since most of its activities were declassified (although some of the code-breaking algorithms remain secret to this day). Derek Jacobi portrayed Turing in a stylish 1996 BBC production of Breaking the Code, adapted from the actor’s starring performance in Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play. Dougray Scott’s Thomas Jericho was Turing in all but name, in 2001’s Enigma. More recently, writer Guy Burt undoubtedly used Joan Clarke as a model for his four amateur female sleuths in 2012’s thoroughly ludicrous The Bletchley Circle.

Those efforts aside, The Imitation Game is likely to stand the test of time, remaining the prime cinematic depiction of Turing and Bletchley Park. Cumberbatch deserves credit for that, and so does Moore. Although the latter takes liberties with established fact — for example, Turing and Cairncross never worked together — the broad strokes are accurate, and we get a solid sense of Turing’s complicated, exciting and ultimately heartbreaking life.

Like all riveting films, it made me want to know more about its characters and setting. Starting with Hodges’ book, of course.

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