In 2001, a gripping drama, called Enigma, directed by Michael Apted, co-scripted by none other than Tom Stoppard and starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslett told the WWII story of the Enigma decoder, an ingenious device that allowed the Germans to communicate and always remain one step ahead of the Allies, until Britain’s MI6 brought the country’s greatest mathematicians and scholars together to break their code. One of them, a quirky, Aspbergers-like prodigy invented an early computer (before there were computers) and was able to crack the Enigma. Sound familiar? It should, since it’s the same plot as 2014’s The Imitation Game, currently in limited release and gaining the lion’s share of Golden Globe Nominations and Oscar buzz.
The difference between The Imitation Game and Enigma, is the original based on a novel by Robert Harris, took factual events and purposely fictionalized them, since the filmmakers did not have the rights to the real life mathematician Alan Turing’s story. Flash-forward, and we have the slightly superior recent version, which not only allows the use of Turing’s name, but an added layer of richness; depicting the world of coding, secrets and lies through the persecution of homosexuals in mid-twentieth century England.
Using time jumps and perspective changes, The Imitation Game begins in 1951, when mathematics teacher Turing has had a burglary in his flat, but does what he can to cover it up. A nosey detective believes there’s something else going on, and begins to dig into Turing’s files, finding his WWII record completely empty. We jump back to 1941, when an egocentric, narcissistic and perhaps pre-diagnosed autistic Turing is brought in by the British Military to interview as a candidate to help crack the recently stolen German Enigma decoder. Turing almost loses the position due to his boorish obstinance, but his unbelievable intellect secures him the post. Impossible to work with, the story deals less with the mechanics of trying to find 150 million million letter combinations to translate the gibberish the Germans are sending back and forth, and more with Turing’s inability to relate to anyone. His team hates him, as he takes every statement at face value and has zero sense of humor. In fact, it is his inability to understand sarcasm, irony or humor that makes him such a genius at puzzle solving and code cracking. He demands the materials to build his own machine which will help crack the code, but the cost is prohibitive, and he’s turned down. Again, without any experience in working within a system, he circumvents his superiors and pleads his case to none other than Winston Churchill who overrides his superiors and allows him to build the machine.
We flash back even further to Turing’s days in boarding school, where we see the inspiration for code cracking, and love blossoming between himself and another boy. As the story develops, and the layers of dysfunction peel away to further define Turing, and our understanding of who he is — what he is — crystalizes; the truth behind his past and his present, and the foundation for his future is laid. It’s a deft balancing act that, in the best way, withholds and reveals information in an uncontrived manner. The many mysteries, including why Turing wanted to squelch any investigation into his break-in, reveal not a spy (as the lead detective believes) but a very human man with the same wants and needs of us all.
Norwegian Director Morten Tyldum makes his English-Language debut, and he is as perfectly matched to the material as his leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch. Both approach the story with a stoic detachment. The plot and the character of Turing take their time revealing what’s going on, and like an enigmatic puzzle, we have to take a step back and see the design of the game while still trying to figure out the trees within the forest.
Keira Knightley does a fine job as the one woman who can hold her own (actually “surpass”) the other decoders on her team, and while her interest and romance with Turing is extremely atypical, she serves to teach him how to be less like a machine and more like a human. She’s as skillful at cracking Turin as she is codes, and therein lies the film’s greatest joy; the revelation that Turing is as great an Enigma as the code machine itself.
Big world event stories often have problems when trying to reduce global impact down to a personal level, but The Imitation Game does an admirable job of constantly reminding us of the human cost involved. Every minute that the codes are not broken means lives lost. One of the team members even has a brother on a destroyer headed for disaster if the Enigma machine’s coding system is not solved. A claustrophobic story by nature (this is really about quantum mechanics and scribbled notes and desks in stuffy rooms), director Tyldum allows for big CG-laden moments of blitzkriegs and bomb shelters to underline the impact that Turing and his team potentially have.
Suffice it to say, the mystery of the Enigma and of Turing himself carries us through to a satisfying (no spoilers!) conclusion, inasmuch as a story of this magnitude and nature can deliver. The Imitation Game may be an imitation itself of the same story made over a decade before, but the latter facts outweigh the former’s fiction in a gloriously puzzling way.