“The Imitation Game” tells a great story, and when it calms down enough, tells it well.
“Pay attention,” Benedict Cumberbatch intones via voice-over early in this true-story-based World War II drama-thriller, in which Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the British mathematician who cracked the German Enigma code.
Alertness is key to understanding the complex story about to unfold, Cumberbatch’s Turing continues. But “Game” is not so much complex as overly busy, at least in its first hour.
Directed by Morten Tyldum and adapted to the screen by Graham Moore partly from Andrew Hodges’ 1983 Turing biography, “Game” piles flashback upon flashback, then bobs and weaves with montages, voice-overs and dissolves.
It moves between Alan’s days at code-breaking headquarters at the Bletchey Park “radio factory” and his postwar life in Manchester, then flashes back further to Alan’s boarding-school days. All within the movie’s first half-hour, with Alexandre Desplat’s insistent score twirling all the way.
When the film does linger on a scene, the scene often plays as overly pat and/or snappy, with Turing, whose social awkwardness is a big point of the movie, nonetheless trading witty rejoinders with the code-cracking operation commander (Charles Dance) and its c’mon-old-chap team leader (Matthew Goode).
The quick-witted repartee seems to come straight from 1930s and ’40s movies. The keep-it-moving, keep-it-bright pacing also evokes a more recent film, the similarly tweedy and 1930s-set “The King’s Speech.” (That 2010 movie, not incidentally, also came from “Game” distributor the Weinstein Co., and even less incidentally, won the best picture Oscar).
“Game’s” bells and whistles suggest a confounding lack of storytelling confidence. Confounding because the filmmakers had fascinating real-life source material from which to draw, and because Cumberbatch can hold our attention when Alan does little but sit at his desk, staring at code.
Brilliant but also seemingly arrogant, and far too literal and intent on his work, Cambridge professor Turing does not make friends when he arrives at Bletchley. If he sounds a bit like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes from the BBC series, it testifies to Cumberbatch’s skill that the resemblance is minimal.
Alan is not cocky like Sherlock but rather convinced of his mental gifts by the facts laid out by his performance at Cambridge, where he was considered a prodigy. When the commander will not pay for the expensive machine Turing wants to build to crack Enigma, Turing appeals to Winston Churchill, who says yes.
While Alan is an able participant in the brisk dialogue exchanges, Cumberbatch’s performance digs beneath the banter from the start, with Cumberbatch slouching to show Alan’s discomfort upon meeting Goode’s character, the confident, good-looking Hugh. As a boarding-school flashback illustrates, guys like Hugh bully guys like Alan. (Though Hugh turns out to be a gem.)
Personal interactions flummox Alan, because he’s rarely is successful at them. Cumberbatch manifests Alan’s yearning to understand the nuances of communication by straining his neck, as if that might help, before deflating in renewed frustration.
Mostly, Alan wants to be left alone to work on his machine. He is convinced it can solve Enigma, which sends out radio signals that only the Germans can decipher.
The movie, fortunately, eventually comes around to Cumberbatch’s deeply sensitive portrayal, and settles into his rhythms. The movie’s displays of urgency – Alan worrying over his machine, the commander leaning on him to get it working as the Germans are bombing England – begin to flow more naturally.
“Game” also stops to savor the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, who plays Joan Clarke, a one-time math student Alan recruits for the code-breaking team through a crossword-puzzle challenge. Brilliant herself, Joan has been kept from pursuing a career in her field by sexism.
In Alan, she finds a mentor unconcerned with social norms, because he does not fit them anyway. Cumberbatch brightens in scenes with Knightley, whose character shares Alan’s laser focus while also being more sociable.
Knightley exudes intelligence and imparts her character’s desire to put her big brain to use. A hit-and-miss actress careerwise, Knightley here gives a mature performance that matches Cumberbatch’s in commitment.
She shows Joan’s great affection for Alan, and how she sees past his odd manner. Alan tries out romance with Joan despite being gay – a state of being that, if acted upon, was illegal in England during his lifetime.
“Game” brings sensitivity to the subject of Alan’s homosexuality, first suggested in the boarding-school scenes. These scenes contain heartbreaking moments played beautifully by Alex Lawther, as young Alan. (Director Tyldum also deserves credit for the continuity, in expression and gesture, in Lawther’s and Cumberbatch’s performances).
Alan’s rule-breaking tendencies eventually will affect his life more than his code-breaking (through which the real Turing not just helped the British war effort but helped pave the way for modern computers). As it covers Alan’s postwar life, “Game” grows serious and steady where it was once flighty – and becomes an altogether better film for it.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
THE IMITATION GAME
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Alex Lawther
Director: Morten Tyldum
Rated PG-13 (sexual references, mature thematic material, smoking)