The British have a word for it: “boffin.” Its meaning is semi-equivalent to our “nerd” or “geek,” but with added shades of suspicion and respect. The boffins are smarter than you or I, but their heads are in the clouds and sometimes up their hindquarters. It’s not that they don’t see the forest for the trees — they’re so good at finding new trees that they never bother about the forest.
“The Imitation Game” celebrates one of the great boffins of the 20th century, Alan Turing, the mathematician who cracked the Nazi codes during World War II and most certainly was a prime mover in the Allies’ victory. Cryptography and artificial intelligence were his trees and WWII was the forest; the way the movie tells it, Turing was an awkward eccentric somewhere on what we now call “the spectrum” who was more obsessed with building his “Universal Machine” — the first stored-program computer and a forerunner to the machine on which I’m typing these words — than in bringing an end to global conflict.
The movie, as movies do, gets a lot of the specifics wrong in the interest of dramatic entertainment, and if you want the real story, by all means pick up Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma”; it’s a fascinating doorstop and the accepted authority on the subject. The film that director Morten Tyldum has made from Hodges’s book is a shinier, less trustworthy thing, but it’s ripping old-school Oscar bait, and if it sends moviegoers off to check the facts, all the better.
And it has Benedict Cumberbatch, or what seems like half of him. Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing is a skinny, stammering stick of a man, so busy reaching out to the numbers whirling around his head that he can barely commune with other humans. “The Imitation Game” skips backward to Turing’s childhood (where he’s played by Alex Lawther) and ahead to the early 1950s, when his closeted homosexuality came to grief against the British criminal justice system, but most of the action unfolds in the hallways and huts of Bletchley Park, the estate northwest of London where government cryptographers worked in secrecy at breaking the German’s Enigma code.
So it’s a suspense film, richly mounted and with all these lovely repressed British people barking at one another. Along with the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game” is this year’s entry in the “King’s Speech” sweepstakes, in which history, human travails, gorgeous costumes, and plummy accents are marshaled for prizes and our edification.
There’s no need to object when the films are well made and tell a good story, and this one succeeds on both counts. It’s intensely watchable. Cumberbatch gets you rooting for his character as Turing goes up against the head of the Enigma-busting program (a ramrod officer played by Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones”) and alienates his fellow code-breakers. The others are led by Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), a chess champion and rake who possesses all the social graces Alan lacks, and they rebel as Turing grabs the reins of the project by personally writing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (didn’t happen).
Turing’s machine is a giant black cube with whirling widgets that he names Christopher in memory of a childhood crush (Jack Bannon); no matter that the actual machine was called Victory. Keira Knightley appears as Joan Clarke, the only woman on the team, and it’s true that the real Turing did propose marriage to her, as a cover and out of genuine friendship. But the eureka moment that sends the cryptographers running from a pub back to Christopher for the breakthrough that allows them to decipher each and every Nazi missive? This is why they make movies — because real life doesn’t play along.
Where “The Imitation Game” earns its weight is in the moral dilemma that ensues. How many of the decoded enemy maneuvers can be intercepted without revealing that the code has been broken? How many soldiers and civilians do you allow to be killed for the greater good of ending the war? The movie personalizes this with agonizing force and, in the person of an omniscient MI6 spook (Mark Strong), nods to the amoral calculus that would come to dominate the postwar world. There’s a film to be made about how government secrecy came spiraling out from Bletchley to conquer the future in which we now live, but “The Imitation Game” would rather give you a very good night at the movies.
Cumberbatch convinces you of Turing’s brilliance and gracelessness, and I think it’s a mark of the actor’s skill that the man he’s playing remains, on some fundamental level, unknowable. “The Imitation Game” has a framing device in which a nosy police inspector (Rory Kinnear) forces Turing to spill his secrets after his 1952 arrest — the Bletchley Park code-breaking would remain unknown to the wider public until the 1970s — but it’s a dramatic device to get the story rolling rather than a confessional. The movie regards Turing from an awed middle distance as the ultimate boffin, and we’re never allowed much closer. Found guilty of “gross indecency,” he chose “hormone therapy” — estrogen injections — over prison. Two years later, he killed himself by eating an apple laced with cyanide. “The Imitation Game” breaks everyone’s code but his.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.