'The Imitation Game' puts the spotlight on Alan Turing and his groundbreaking machine

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

It is the height of the Second World War. A group of codebreakers stands in a dimly lit warehouse 50 miles northwest of London, a giant machine composed of spinning drums and wires looms in front of them. It's taken years of work -- as well as a few shouting matches -- to get the device assembled and ready to start sorting through 159 quintillion combinations in search of the one that will let the British crack the Germans' infamous Enigma machine. The switch is flipped and nine rows of drums begin spinning as the assembled group waits... and waits. It takes a while to go through each combination, and staring at the device has all the excitement of watching laundry spin in a dryer. Frustration quickly sets in and tensions mount, because for the team in The Imitation Game, guns and tanks are not the weapons they fear. Their enemy is time.

'The Imitation Game' Trailer

The Imitation Game is a new film based on the life of legendary computer scientist Alan Turing, played here by Benedict Cumberbatch. Many are already familiar with the idea of a Turing machine, a hypothetical device envisioned by Turing that served as a starting point for the concept of modern computing. And many more are familiar with the infamous Turing test, which is used to see if a machine can think like a human. A human judge converses with both a computer and a person in normal conversation without knowing which one they are communicating with. In the end, they must decide which is which, and if they cannot tell the difference, the computer is said to have passed the test. The original version actually involved the judge conversing with a man and a woman to try and tell which gender was which -- this was known as the "Imitation Game."

Despite the influence that Turing's work has on modern computing, the film narrows its focus on his recruitment by the British Navy during World War II. He's been tasked to crack the Enigma -- an encryption machine used by Nazi Germany to encode communications that were thought, at the time, to be unbreakable. Turing's work during this period was highly classified and remained secret into the '70s, so it remains underreported compared to other wartime narratives. The lack of previous examination of this subject allows The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore plenty of room to explore new historical territory.

Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech star in The Imitation Game

A few years ago, when The King's Speech was making the rounds in awards circles, I heard a joke about how it basically hit the trifecta of Oscar bait: There were British people; they were fighting Nazis; and the main character had a disability. That axiom came to mind when I first saw a trailer for The Imitation Game. It takes place in Britain, so there are plenty of Brits; it's set during World War II and the characters are trying to crack German codes, so there's your Nazi fighting. No one in this film has a disability, though some psychologists have speculated about the possibility of Turing having had Asperger's based on historical accounts. But there is, at least, a great degree of personal adversity in the fact that he's a closeted gay man in a society where being such was outlawed for "gross indecency." The movie doesn't shy away from this aspect of his life, but it also doesn't dwell on it, choosing to focus on his accomplishments instead. His eventual arrest and conviction serves as a framing device for the real point of this film: He did so much, and yet we knew so little, and the one secret that didn't stay hidden was the one that eventually killed him.

He did so much, and yet we knew so little, and the one secret that didn't stay hidden was the one that eventually killed him.

The film jumps through three different periods of his life, and we begin in 1952 with Turing in an interrogation room talking to a police officer. He isn't asking for leniency and he isn't being asked to account for his actions. He's telling us a story, the story of why he doesn't have a past that the police can easily look up. And it's that story, of his work at Bletchley Park, that the film focuses the majority of its time on, taking the occasional break to depict Turing's early days at boarding school as he experiences young love. These two narratives are interspersed with the events in 1952 to show us the direct events that led Turing to that interrogation room. These three time periods can function apart from one another, none dependent on the others to tell its part of the story, but they come together to paint a portrait of an intensely lonely man.

The parts that feel the least lonely are those at Bletchley Park, where Turing has been stuck with a group of codebreakers working toward the common goal of cracking Enigma. It's not an instant bond; far from it. A wall exists mentally between Turing and the others because of his inability to understand basic concepts of human interaction, and then there are quite literally walls between him and his teammates. Turing is, for the most part, shown working separately, first in an isolated corner of his team's hut with a partition between him and the others, and then later in another building entirely as he constructs the giant computing device he has lovingly named "Christopher."

If you were expecting Sherlock Holmes here, Cumberbatch delivers a performance that is far from it. He may share a similar strain of arrogance, but in The Imitation Game, there's always a quiver of nervousness underlying it, an impending sense that even if he's right, everything could go horribly wrong. For the purposes of the film, the brunt of the threats to Turing and his work are represented by Cmdr. Alastair Denniston, played by Charles Dance. Historically, Denniston was transferred out of Bletchley Park in 1942 after Turing and the other codebreakers complained directly to Winston Churchill about a lack of resources. While there is a scene in the film where Turing does contact Churchill in the same fashion, it does not result in the demotion of Denniston. Instead, he remains in his post and serves as a human face for the doubt surrounding Turing's methods, laying down ultimatums where failure means death. The latter isn't an exaggeration -- Denniston makes it explicitly clear several times that the wrong move will result in Turing being executed as a traitor.

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

Even though this part of the film is being told in flashback and the threat will never be acted on, the mood is still tense. That's because we're never in fear for Turing's well-being, but rather, the fate of his work. It's the work on Christopher that forms the beating heart of the film, driving the action forward as well as serving as the focus for most of the emotional bonds. This is not a romance; though Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) and Turing share a few tender moments, those are based on an intellectual bond. Turing may not have romantic or sexual feelings toward Clarke, but he certainly is attracted to her mind and perhaps her "outsider" status in the group.

Though Clarke is not the focus of the film, it occasionally throws some light on a problem that persists today: the role of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Clarke is recruited via a national newspaper crossword, but when she arrives for the test, she is initially dismissed due to her gender. Later, she meets the rest of the team and when they immediately take to her affable character, Turing asks Clarke why, and she insinuates that she has to be charming since she's essentially operating at a disadvantage as a woman in a male-dominated industry. She's not even allowed to work with the rest of the team in the same building at first; her closeness increases as the success of the project draws nearer.

It's always refreshing to see on-screen characters speaking intelligently rather than resorting to silly metaphors or having a layman shout, "Speak English!"

The puzzle facing Turing isn't a MacGuffin laid out to generate drama and push the plot to a specific point. The construction of a working machine is the goal; solving Enigma is the climax. In service of that focus, the film does what it can to help the audience understand not just what's at stake (the lives of British soldiers and the longevity of the war), but also how the Enigma machine works and why it's proving so difficult to crack. It does stumble a bit when it glosses over some of the logistics involved with configuring the Enigma -- for example, the settings of every Enigma machine are changed at midnight (thus creating a hard deadline that the codebreakers struggle with every day), but the film glosses over how the Germans knew what the new settings were. It created an unnecessary bit of confusion -- why are the British trying to break the Enigma code itself, instead of attempting to steal the codebooks containing the list of future Enigma settings, just as they were able to steal an Enigma machine? A little more dialog addressing this could have shut down that train of thought entirely. Other details are not glossed over as much, and it's always refreshing to see on-screen characters speaking intelligently rather than resorting to silly metaphors or having a layman shout, "Speak English!"

Technology really shines in the scenes at Bletchley Park, with the camera showcasing the various devices at work. There are plenty of shots of Turing's technical diagrams, displayed on the walls of his office and spread across the floor in an order that only he would understand. We get to see the small Enigma machines in use, with Turing tapping away at the keyboards on them to decode intercepted messages that could change the course of the war.

Matthew Goode in the Imitation Game

But in the end, it's Christopher that really steals the show, dominating every shot set inside the hut, with moments where it felt like a spotlight had been put on the giant Bombe machine. It's no coincidence that the rest of the film tends to dwell in muted colors in contrast to the drums on Christopher, which are attention-getting shades of bright green, red and yellow. We are meant to focus on Christopher because that is what Turing has chosen to focus his attention on, to the exclusion of those around him. A great deal of conflict in the film is centered on Turing building a machine whose usefulness is only hypothetical, instead of working on the more "real" task of decoding individual messages. The idea is to work smarter, not harder, and as Christopher nears completion, so does Turing's inclusion in the team, with his fellow codebreakers becoming active collaborators in Christopher's construction.

After all Turing's hard work in getting the machine running, it is not a bang, but a whimper we are waiting for: The climax comes not when the machine's drums are spinning, clattering away as it seeks each day's Enigma settings, but when they stop. One of the most dramatic points in the film is heralded by silence, but it's not a silence that lasts for long, as the team struggles with the consequences of the immense power it now holds.

Overall, The Imitation Game is a movie about quiet moments. Like The King's Speech it details a wartime struggle where our protagonists fire no shots and wear no helmets, but the actions they take will save the lives of millions. And yet, they are secret struggles, with few aware of what actually happened. The film does not embellish Turing's actions by adding an action set piece or tumultuous phony romance to placate audience expectations. Instead, it chooses to focus on the things that were important to Turing: his work. Like any good puzzle, The Imitation Game has its twists and turns, but it succeeds by being elegant and thoughtful.