The Imitation Game is the story of a man who decoded some of the most cryptic codes in history, but struggled to understand everyday mannerisms — someone who found more solace in machines than his fellow men. The film, quite early and throughout, asks the following questions: What does it mean to not get your peers’ in-jokes, but be in sync with something that no one else gets? What is it like to be powerful — and in complete control — one moment, and completely vulnerable the next? But most importantly: How does it feel to be different?
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is different for sure, but he isn’t exactly a timid wallflower. Over time, he’s learnt to be arrogant and condescending to the extent of being petty and puerile. It could well be a defence mechanism, cloaking insecurities with insults. Twenty-seven-year-old Turing has been summoned by the British government to crack a Nazi code called Enigma, which has been wreaking havoc. If Turing can crack the code, the Second World War may end sooner. This sort of operation needs a team, but Turing doesn’t want to collaborate. Turing believes he’s a man in the sea of boys. But a team, consisting of linguists, chess players and intelligence officers, is eventually strung together. Turing doesn’t like the change. They don’t like Turing.
The Imitation Game, for the most part, revolves around the differences between seeing and watching, hearing and listening. As a precocious high school kid, Turing watched cryptic symbols, while his teachers saw gibberish boxes; as Turing grew up, the social misfit that he remained, he merely heard conversations of his colleagues, comprehending them at their face value, remaining oblivious to what they could have implied, while his peers, glib talkers and shrewd conversationalists, listened to words, which enabled them social acceptance. The Imitation Game explores these schisms — between the attentive and ignorant, genius and everyman, ordinary and extraordinary — quite expertly. Sure, these differences have been explored in many Hollywood biopics, centered on brilliant, eccentric minds, in the past, but these story arcs don’t appear formulaic in this film because they are essential to understand Turing the man. And a formula becomes tedious only if the filmmaker sees it as one. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore are not interested in deconstructing the phenomenon of the Tormented Genius; they want to understand what made this man soar, stumble or fall. But most importantly, they make the familiar engaging. A lot of scenes are set up in a fashion where payoffs are not difficult to guess, but they don’t jar because the scenes themselves are so joyously crafted. The Imitation Game is simple, never simplistic.
And, in the midst of this directorial and screenwriting ingenuity, Benedict Cumberbatch stands tall. Despite his perpetual cold insolence, you still want to warm up to this man because he’s on to something greater than himself — he’s poised to be a war hero without having fought the war. You can’t slot Cumberbatch’s Turing, who slowly comes to terms with different versions of himself — a bullied school boy turns into a megalomaniac mathematician, who, finally, becomes a miserable recluse. The film also juggles time and place with complete ease, cutting back and forth between Dorset (1928), London (1939-1945) and Manchester (1951), providing a nuanced account of a code breaker hiding his own secrets from the world almost all his life. The bittersweet irony (more bitter, less sweet) of a mathematician unlocking secrets while hiding his own is not lost on the film, but it never belabours that
A film like The Imitation Game, circling around enigmatic codes and arcane math, needs to trump its inherent stumbling block: of staying true to its subject (the obfuscating science) without alienating the audience. In some films, this is achieved through clunky exposition (yes Mr Christopher Nolan, I am looking at you), but Tyldum and Moore tide over this problem with considerable élan, succumbing to neither dumbed-down banality nor esoteric indulgence.
Flip through the pages of history, and you will find devastating stories aplenty, and they will have something fundamental in common: how one man’s life, someplace, sometime, was cruelly stomped over because of something larger that he couldn’t control. Alan Turing, too, was similarly wronged. A man who ended up saving more than 14 million lives in the Second World War, eventually died alone. The Imitation Game tries to understand the true import of that loss, and essentially tells us this: Find what you want to be alone with.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian