The opening voiceover of The Imitation Game sets the tone and expectation of the film. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) instructs his audience to listen carefully and, once the story is completed, make their judgement based on full awareness of the facts. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore ensure full appreciation by crafting an extremely precise film that balances the different elements of this important historical story.
In one respect, The Imitation Game is a gripping wartime thriller about the breaking of the Enigma code, a crucial development in the eventual Allied victory over the Nazis. Despite this being a known historical story, The Imitation Game still ratchets up the tension through its focus upon the code-breakers’ painstaking work, complete with frustrations, exultations and very difficult choices. Equally, the film is a portrayal of a man out of place, as Turing is homosexual in a time when it was illegal, and also socially awkward to the point of being aspergic. He is a genius surrounded by people who cannot keep up, and the film contextualises his isolation within his sophisticated intellectual understanding, his social ineptitude and his essential secrecy around his sexuality. The tension between this isolation and essential interactions is the source of both humour and pathos across the film’s three narrative threads.
The framing narrative takes place in 1951, when Turing is investigated by Manchester police Investigator Nock (Rory Kinnear) on suspicion of Soviet espionage, an investigation that leads to the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality. Turing consequently tells Nock the full story of his work on Enigma between 1939 and 1944, which forms the bulk of the narrative. There are also flashbacks to 1928 and the young Turing’s (Alex Lawther) relationship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Across these different threads, Turing’s lack of comprehension over social decorum and military officialdom are funny both in terms of his unexpected responses and in highlighting the absurdity in such conventions. Yet these sequences also demonstrate Turing’s difficulty with people, a difficulty that becomes increasingly tragic.
It is to the film’s great credit that it balances its thrills, laughs and tears with perfect precision, as calculated a piece of engineering as the machine Turing builds to decode Enigma. Yet it is in no way a cold film, the emotional distress of Turing as well as those around him including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) contrasting with the sneering superciliousness of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and the ruthless pragmatism of MI6 director Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), as well as Nock’s own zeal for his investigation being replaced with dismay over his findings. Everyone is fighting their own war here, and while the casualties may be inevitable, they are engaging and affecting in equal measure.