The disturbing, involving, always-complex story of British mathematician Alan Turing is a tale crafted to resonate for our time, and the smartly entertaining "The Imitation Game" gives it the kind of crackerjack cinematic presentation that's pure pleasure to experience.
Turing, exceptionally well-played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was a brilliant man, often considered the father of computer science, whose top-secret work as a code breaker of genius shortened World War II by years, saved millions of lives and was so central to the Allied victory that it was said the war could not have been won without it.
But Turing was also a homosexual at a time when that was an out and out crime in Britain, and as a result (a bit like the politically suspect atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in this country), he was humiliated and destroyed by a postwar establishment that would have perished without his efforts.
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Named after a paper Turing wrote about artificial intelligence, "The Imitation Game" does not lack for conventional elements. But they are handled with such depth and emotion by a top cast that includes Keira Knightley, Mark Strong and Charles Dance that we end up impressed by the level of intelligent storytelling it provides.
Stories this involving invariably start with a persuasive script, and Graham Moore's is so good, filled with on-target dialogue that's as explosive as any wartime munitions, that it landed at the top of the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts.
"Imitation Game" goes back and forth between three time periods, starting in 1952 in Manchester with a startling monologue ("Pay close attention, I will not pause, I will not repeat myself" is how it begins) that Turing delivers to a busybody police detective (Rory Kinnear) during the interrogation that follows his arrest for "gross indecency."
Things then flash back to 1939 at Bletchley Park, the site of Turing's code-breaking exploits and the film's central location, as well as retreating even further in time to Turing's miserable 1929 schoolboy days at the Sherborne School.
Giving Turing's wartime exploits, as well as the entire film, the unexpected pacing of a thriller is the work of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, whose crackling "Headhunters," adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbo, became the highest-grossing film in that country's history.
The same qualities that the director exhibited in that picture, including a fascination with narrative structure, the creation of a frisson of danger and an ability to handle personal situations as well as action moments, give "Imitation Game" more high tension than its outline would have you believe.
Helping in this, as he does in all things, is star Cumberbatch. For years, he's been excellent in smaller roles in films like "Amazing Grace," "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," but he didn't become a major player until he became Sherlock Holmes on British TV.
Good as he's been in the past, however, the richness and complexity of Turing's character make this portrayal of an arrogant, difficult, sure-of-himself individual the role of Cumberbatch's career. His performance makes Turing accessible, even palatable, and gives us a sense of how smart, how impossible, yet how finally human was this man whose idea of a compliment was to say, "That is not an entirely terrible idea."
The wartime sections of "Imitation Game" open with Turing, as he often was, in an adversarial mode. Only 27 but one of the world's best mathematicians, he has come down to Bletchley Park to offer his services as a code breaker, but the spit-and-polish man in charge, Cmdr. Denniston (a splendidly apoplectic Dance), takes an instant dislike to him and is about to show him the door — until he mentions Enigma.
Nazi Germany's code creator, the super-secret Enigma machine was considered all but unbreakable because of the millions of options possible for the codes it created daily. Turing believes he knows how to beat it, but it won't be easy.
The British have put together a team to break Enigma's code, including the suave national chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and the empathetic John Cairncross ("Downton Abbey's" Allen Leech).
But being on a team is definitely not Turing's style, and because the culture of personal small talk is one code he will never break, he is totally at sea in human relations. Turing hopes to best Enigma by creating another machine, one that can think, but he is such a pain that his teammates almost hope he fails.
Turing's fortunes begin to change when key people start to believe in him, including MI6 honcho Stewart Menzies (Strong) and a diffident female math whiz named Joan Clarke (Knightley) he hires as the result of a newspaper crossword puzzle competition.
The level-headed but invariably cheerful Clarke, who frankly tells the difficult Turing, "I'm a woman in a man's job. I don't have the luxury of being an ass," is some of Knightley's best work. She sees Turing for what he is, attraction to men included, but his personality does not stand in the way of their closeness.
As a marvelous-looking computing machine gradually gets built (Maria Djurkovic is the production designer), the truth of "Imitation Game's" Turing-generated theme becomes more and more apparent: "Sometimes it's the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine." A too tidy sentiment, perhaps, but a top-notch film nevertheless.
'The Imitation Game'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood, Landmark Theater, West L.A.