Early in "The Imitation Game," making its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, a senior Navy officer, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) puts matters in bleak perspective: "This war? We're losing it."
It's early in the conflict; America has yet to join the British-Soviet alliance, and England is an island nation 600 miles from Germany on the brink of starvation and surrender. Denniston's being blunt because he's trying to build a team to try and break the complex, massively advanced German code known as Enigma.
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant mathematician who lacks many of the social graces, is less interested in joining Denniston's team than having the team join him: "These men will only slow me down." Denniston doesn't much like Turing, but he likes him slightly more than the Nazis, and so Turing becomes part of a one of the war's most top-secret initiatives … and Turing has secrets of his own.
Directed by Morten Tydlum ("Headhunters") in his English-language debut. "The Imitation Game" looks at Turing's life during, pre- and post-war. After the war, Turing was exposed as a homosexual after a break-in led the police to question his private life; he was charged, chemically castrated through the barbaric and then-experimental injection of female hormones and lost everything.
First-time feature-film screenwriter Graham Moore, adapting Andrew Hodges' book, has to balance a war story spread across continents with the more intimate fights, feuds and failures of the group that was trying to crack Enigma. He does, with a clean clarity that's welcome, whether explaining personal lives or the complex technical exposition required to make audiences understand and appreciate the task Turing and his group faced. Turing invented, designed and built a specific highly specialized machine to break Enigma, but you may know that machine by a different name: The computer.
As Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent -- vain and insecure, arrogant yet with the skills to back that arrogance up. Cumberbatch is used to playing the smartest man in the room, and he does so superbly here while also conveying the way Turing responds to the conflicts and challenges of the job, including many that Turing's creating for himself.
Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a real cryptographer who helped break Enigma, and her combination of pluck, innate decency and British-ness serves her in good stead here. And Mark Strong is smooth, charming and nigh-perfect as the Le Carre-esque spymaster pulling the strings above the Enigma group.
More than just thrills, though, "The Imitation Game" also offers a blistering critique of society then and now. If Turing had been hounded out of the war effort for being gay before his work was done, then the war would have gone much differently, and much worse, for the Allies; as it was, we can reflect how 'lucky' we are that homophobia and archaic laws destroyed only Turing's life, and not whole civilizations.
Knightley's Joan has to fight and be fought for to serve on the team as well -- and the film invites us to question what other victories, triumphs and advances throughout history have been lost to the idiotic hate and narrow prejudices of homophobia and sexism.
The film's structure -- traveling from Turing's home in Manchester in '51 to his work in the South of England during the war to his days as a school boy -- may make leaps, but Tydlum makes sure we can follow its steps.
On one hand, "The Imitation Game" is another wartime bio-pic of struggle and victory; on the other, it serves as a scathing indictment of prejudice and fear as the enemies of scientific progress and national achievement. Turing's story may evoke memories of Ron Howard's phony, falsified and sentimental Oscar-winner "A Beautiful Mind."
What Tydlum does instead with Turing's story is far harder, and far better, showing us not just Turing's beautiful mind but also the ugly world it had to live in until it could no longer bear that burden. Strong, stirring, triumphant and tragic, "The Imitation Game" may be about a man who changed the world, but it's also about the world that destroyed a man.