Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Imitation Game

Code breaking is an art as much as a science and never was it needed, or more artfully accomplished, than by the British during World War II. Set during the middle of Second World War, The Imitation Game follows an unlikely group of scholars, mathematicians, linguists, chess champions, and intelligence officers who were thrown together with the singular goal of breaking Germany's unbreakable code known as Enigma. Enter Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who might have been the biggest hero of the war if every advancement he made in cryptology (including the creation of the first computer) hadn't been state secrets until well after his death.

Based on the novel by Andrew Hodges and adapted by Graham Moore, the film is anchored by Benedict Cumberbatch who lends a vulnerability to the abrasiveness of Turing whose own co-workers often struggled to get along with. In one of her most understated roles Keira Knightley stars as Joan Clarke, the lone female member of the team to break Engima, even if she had to officially work as a secretary in order to do so.

As he's done on Sherlock so well, Cumberbatch slides easily into the role of an aloof genius whose inadequacies in the social graces nearly cost him his opportunity to build his famous machine. His obvious ability and genius allows him to be tolerated, but its through the eyes of Joan Clarke we see him accepted and loved which makes the film's final scenes concerning the genius' later years all that more heartbreaking.

Turing's name is well known for his advancements in creating an entire field of computer science and artificial intelligence. Clarke's name, however, is less known. Knightley's performance both grounds the character and adds gravitas to a woman who was far more than Turing's Girl Friday. Having already won me over with her lead performance of the wounded songwriter in Begin Again earlier this year, here Knightley is equally elegant as a gifted cryptologist whose practical view of the world, and the cultural view on a woman's role in the workforce, nearly prevented her from ever becoming part of code-breaking project.

Rounding out the cast are Mark Strong as the man who recruited Turing and teaches the mathematician some hard lessons about spycraft, Charles Dance as the commander who takes an immediate dislike to our main character that only grows stronger over the course of the film, and Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and James Northcote as the men forced to work with, and later for, a mad man whose uncooperative machine seemed a fool's errand at best. All told Morten Tyldum assembles the best cast of any film I've seen this year to explore an amazing story and the tragic later years of a man who western civilization owes a tremendous debt.

Part historical drama, part character study of a brilliant mind and flawed man, and part suspense film set against the real deaths of thousands of service men, The Imitation Game is easily one of the best films of 2014. Bookended by Turing's arrest for homosexuality a decade after the war and the detective (Rory Kinnear) who coaxes a tale far beyond his imaginings, the film also includes flashbacks to Turing as a young man (Alex Lawther) and the love of his life which is the thread used to help explain his interest in codes as well as the scientist's outward demeanor and nature years later.

The climax of the film doesn't come with the breaking of the code but with its dark implications that, for the sake of timing, must be condensed into only a couple of scenes. As with the rest of Turing's life, the achievement of breaking the unbreakable code was tinged with tragedy of yet another secret which he could never share. After assembling a terrific cast, Tyldum deftly mines a straightforward but thoroughly fascinating story that plays on multiple levels and delivers audiences the one must-see movie of the Christmas season.

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