Past the Popcorn: Cumberbatch Stars as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

by Jeff Walls

The characters in the new movie The Imitation Game are constantly reminding us and each other that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  One such person is the movie’s true-life protagonist, Alan Turing, an English mathematician who broke the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II while almost single-handedly inventing the computer.  Despite this, Turing was chastised by the British government for being gay in a time when that was considered to be a crime.  Because of this, the general population—especially that outside the United Kingdom—is not as familiar as they should be with Turing’s accomplishments.  This movie, fortunately, is set to change all that.

The story focuses mostly on the time during World War II.  A brilliant, but complicated math professor, Turing is recruited for a top secret government operation.  The Germans are winning the war, he is told, thanks in large part to their Enigma encoding machine that makes their communications impossible for the Allies to decipher.  Turing and his team are tasked with breaking the code.  Using traditional code-breaking techniques, the team looks to be faced with an impossible task.  Always willing to look outside the box, however, Turing develops his own machine that is specifically designed to break down the innumerable combinations in a fraction of the time it would take the human brain to do the same.  This “Turing Machine” would become the first computer.

imitation-game-insetIn addition to the wartime sequences, the movie also flashes back to scenes from Turing’s childhood in boarding school and shows his troublesome later years.  In the early scenes, we are introduced to Turing and his friend Christopher.  Christopher would not only be the one to introduce Turing to the art of code-breaking, but he would also become the love of Turing’s life.  In the latter-year sequences, we are shown how Turing was broken down and emotionally tortured by the same government that he had earlier helped save the world.

The movie balances its three time-lines brilliantly, with scenes in each timeline informing the others.  The childhood sequences do an excellent job of informing the audience what experiences helped to create the adult Turing, while the last-days sequences help to explain the true tragedy that this hero’s life became.  The transitions back and forth between the three timelines are smooth and it is easy to follow when and where we are.

Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who is showing up everywhere nowadays, and one might think that he’d be getting close to being in danger of being overexposed.  Instead, he just continues to deliver terrific performance after terrific performance, making you forget that he has been in so many other movies and television shows lately.  Cumberbatch’s I’m-smarter-than-thou delivery for Turing may seem a little too close to his Sherlock Holmes persona as the movie opens, but the actor quickly disappears into the person of Turing and delivers one of the best performances of the year.

One of the movie’s strengths is that, even though it is a serious movie about serious topics, it does not forget to have a sense of humor.  This is especially important in the beginning of the movie, as the movie’s sense of humor—such as the interview scene or Turing’s early awkward interactions with his teammates—helps the audience to relate with the characters.  Joan Clarke, the female member of the team played by Keira Knightley, also helps with this.  She is a grounded character who helps Turing relate to those around him in the film as well as those of us watching from the seats in the theater.  The movie’s sense of humor and willingness to tackle serious issues without hammering these issues too hard helps to create a message movie that does not feel like a message movie.

The Imitation Game proves to be one of those rare movies that entertains and educates on an equal level.  It tells a story that needed to be told and thanks to it being so entertaining, it should make its story more accessible to the average moviegoer without selling out its message or becoming too melodramatic. This is a game that is worth being played.

The Imitation Game opened yesterday at the AMC Southcenter 16. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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One Response to “Past the Popcorn: Cumberbatch Stars as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
  1. WINTERMUTE says:

    “while almost single-handedly inventing the computer.”


    Ada and Charles invented it almost a century earlier.

    Turing is responsible for “turing completeness” which is the foundation of much of modern computer science and related discrete math and but he can’t take credit for computers in general.

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