TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Years after the mysterious and tragic death of the mathematician Alan Turing, the public learned of his seminal role in cracking Nazi Germany's Enigma code, through which the Nazis shared their war plans. In the new film "The Imitation Game," Benedict Cumberbatch plays the elusive Turing, Keira Knightley, a comrade in arms. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Major studios once churned out scores of great-person biographical pictures. But now you rarely see them except during awards season. They're prime Oscar bait. The new Stephen Hawking biopic, "The Theory Of Everything," is a perfect specimen. It's a letdown, finally, but Eddie Redmayne is amazingly tough. He captures the fury inside Hawking's twisted frame.
And then there's "The Imitation Game," which Benedict Cumberbatch lifts far above the standard biopic formula. He's award-caliber strange. He plays the proto-computer genius, World War II code breaker and gay martyr Alan Turing and has the perfect visage for it - that alien reptile face, those hemisphere-wide blue eyes. They could conceivably see patterns and possibilities the rest of us can't glimpse. Human interactions are more of a challenge for Turing. Today, we might diagnose him with Asperger's syndrome, but then he just seemed arrogant. Cumberbatch - as is his want - gives this indifference to social niceties a comic spin in early scenes. Only later will it have a tragic dimension.
"The Imitation Game" begins in the '50s when a police detective summons the squirrelly Turing for questioning. He thinks Turing is a spy. But Turing's secretiveness is, of course, the result of his homosexuality, considered almost as heinous back then. The bulk of the film is a flashback to the war when the British are having their heads handed to them by the Germans. The Nazis communicate via something called the enigma machine. And no one is close to cracking the code it generates. Charles Dance plays the officious commander who summons Turing to a site called Bletchley Park, northwest of London and hints at the gravity of the project.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Of course that's what you're working on. But you also haven't got anywhere with it. If you had, you wouldn't be hiring cryptographers out of university. You need me a lot more than I need you. I like solving problems, commander. And Enigma is the most difficult problem in the world.
CHARLES DANCE: (As Commander Denniston) No, Enigma isn't difficult; it's impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans, everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Good. Let me try, and we'll know for sure, won't we?
EDELSTEIN: Cumberbatch is the one freaky touch in an otherwise conventional movie. But those conventions, in this case, work handsomely. Graham Moore's script is smart and shapely, the direction, by Morton Tyldum, brisk. At Bletchley, Turing promptly alienates his colleagues, but then he finds an ally - Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. She is first seen auditioning for Bletchley by solving a complicated puzzle, the process overseen by Turing and Mark Strong, MI6 agent.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMITATION GAME")
CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) You've finished?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Joan Clarke) Yes.
CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) Five minutes and 34 seconds.
KNIGHTLEY: (As Jon Clarke) You said to do it in under six.
MARK STRONG: (As Stewart Menzies) Congratulations, my warmest welcome to his Majesty's service. If you speak a word of what I'm about to show you, you will be executed for high treason. You will lie to your friends, your family and everyone you meet about what it is you really do.
KNIGHTLEY: (As Joan Clarke) And what is it that we're really doing?
CUMBERBATCH: (As Alan Turing) We're going to break an unbreakable Nazi code and win the war.
KNIGHTLEY: (As Joan Clarke) Oh.
EDELSTEIN: The relationship between Turing and Joan is fascinating. Although she's not allowed to work alongside men - yes, really - they spent evenings together. He even proposes marriage. Think of it, two unique, ambitious people concocting a design for living in a firmly sexist, homophobic culture. It's Keira Knightley's best moment when she looks at him coolly with a devious smile. Maybe it's a viable strategy.
I've read most of the book on which "The Imitation Game" is based, Andrew Hodges's "Alan Turing: The Enigma." But the math was so far beyond me, I felt unworthy. The movie is nowhere near so complex. It streamlines the code breaking like mad and doesn't throw enough credit to other Bletchley figures. But the gist is right. Turing spends months tinkering on a machine he calls Christopher, named for something we learn late in the film, something heartbreaking. Turing's achievements and everything about Bletchley Park only came out three decades later. When Turing was tried for so-called deviance, no one knew he was a hero.
There's a final scene between Turing and Joan I doubt happened, but this is a biopic. Someone in the film needs to remind him of his worth at his lowest ebb. "The Imitation Game's" most disturbing irony is that Turing broke the world's toughest code, but never cracked the code of behavior that would've given him the life he richly deserved.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews some of the best Christmas albums released this year. This is FRESH AIR.
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