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The Imitation Game crafts an unfinished portrait of codebreaker Alan Turing

If you know anything about Alan Turing — anything at all, including, say, what you might have gleaned from reading Neal Stephenson’s excellent doorstop of a novel CryptonomiconThe Imitation Game is unlikely to surprise you. As a tidy, glossy, good-for-you awards-season film about important Brits, it’s entirely watchable, and not much more.

Benedict Cumberbatch, intense and neatly clad, plays Turing as an impatient, rather anxious genius, though the film does a lot more telling than showing where that brilliance is concerned. (It has this in common with The Theory of Everything, which provided no insight into Stephen Hawking’s work.) 

During WW II, Turing built a machine that cracked the vital Nazi code called Enigma, and much of The Imitation Game focuses on Turing and a small staff as they work frantically to decipher a code that changes every day. The work consists largely of pushing buttons and throwing pieces of paper; the drama is of the office-conflict variety, as the socially awkward Turing infuriates everyone, but is so smart they begrudgingly respect him anyway. The only person he’s nice to is bright young Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley); neither of them care much for gender-based social norms. Briefly, the two get engaged, which conveniently keeps Clarke at work and Turing’s sexuality under wraps. 

The Imitation Game plays it incredibly safe where Turing’s personal life is concerned, pushing anything remotely revealing to flashbacks (where young Turing crushes on a classmate) and a framing sequence set in 1951. During the heroic part of the movie, he has no attractions, no affections, no urges, only work. (Matthew Goode, as his prettiest colleague, gets to joke about sex, but no one else so much as considers it.)

Eventually, of course, Turing and his machine crack the Enigma, and for a brief moment the codebreakers face the resulting horrible realization: They can’t use all the decoded information without giving away their success to the Nazis. The moral quandary this poses is given a too-neat movie treatment that tidily encapsulates the movie’s overall weakness: Everything difficult or complex is oversimplified, smoothed out, burnished to a golden, Oscar-like hue — including Alan Turing, and the ugliness that awaited him. 

Some years after the war, when his work was still secret, Turing was prosecuted for being gay. Forced to choose between prison and chemical castration, he chose the latter. The Imitation Game doesn’t know what to do with this part of Turing’s story; it tucks it in hurriedly at the end.  

It’s impossible not to be furious at what happened to Turing, and to wonder what the world would be like had he stayed in it. This isn’t a movie with any ideas about that. It just wants to portray the Turing that beat Enigma, and in that it does a perfectly reasonable job.