Writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum layer “The Imitation Game” with secrets as delicately yet densely as a baker applying phyllo dough to baklava.
This suspenseful drama reveals pieces of its puzzle steadily and slowly, until the final heartrending picture can be seen at last. Remarkably, it comes from a screenwriter who had never had a feature film produced and a director who had never made one in English.
The title refers literally to an article written by Alan Turing, the British mathematician who calculated the possibilities that machines could learn to imitate the thinking of human beings. (He’s sometimes considered the father of modern computing, and the movie shows why.)
It refers metaphorically to Turing himself, who learned to cooperate with other people and make himself tolerable by imitating their behavior. Today, he’d be placed somewhere on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum; in the 1940s, when he collaborated with other math brainiacs to break a seemingly impregnable Nazi code, he came off as a weirdo who didn’t know how to make friends, couldn’t take or make a joke and had an ego the size of Westminster Abbey.
Moore and Tyldum skip gracefully back and forth among three times in his life: the high school years, when his talent emerges; the war years, when he becomes an extraordinary hero; and the 1950s, when postwar Britain has no use for his kind of odd chap. (Of course, he wasn’t allowed to discuss his war work publicly.)
Alex Lawther paves the way for Benedict Cumberbatch with a sensitive performance as young Alan; Cumberbatch takes over when we see Turing at 27 and does the finest acting in an already distinguished career. His Turing is prickly yet vulnerable, blunt to the point of rudeness yet able to care about others, devoted to his cause in a purely abstract way and then in a more personal one. We never stop being curious about him, and we feel for him by the end.
Most of the movie deals with his team’s attempt to decode Nazi messages, which use a different key every day. If they can do so, the British will be able to anticipate every German decision and troop movement.
Turing nominally works for chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), but he’s convinced only a machine can calculate possible combinations quickly enough to solve problems before midnight. He believes he can build one, with or without his team; he’s supported by spymaster Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) and opposed by traditionalist Commander Deniston (Charles Dance).
The script comes from Andrew Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” which also inspired Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play “Breaking the Code” and the 1988 movie made from it. I haven’t yet read that 700-page tome, but the filmmakers tell a complete story in less than two hours. They even take time for Turing’s platonic but affectionate relationship with a female codebreaker (Keira Knightley), showing how her life in a sexist society has been easier yet more limiting than his.
Cinematographer Óscar Faura and composer Alexandre Desplat provide visual and aural images that seem light and cheerful at first but have enough dark elements to hint that something unsettling will eventually happen. Like everyone connected with this film, they’re not going to give away all their secrets until the very end.