History, as it’s imagined by the movies, has been made and manipulated by rather similar men. The persistent problems dogging the biopic genre aren’t just limited to the much-pilloried practice of listing life event after life event; they also extend to the samey-samey personalities (usually the gentle smartass or the reforming jerk) stamped out by overly respectful scripts that seem to take their cues not from the individualities of their subjects but from other movie treatments.
In that sense, “The Imitation Game” is a fitting title for the new Alan Turing biopic. Though the film is named after the mathematician and computer scientist’s most famous invention, a litmus test for artificial intelligence, as well as the possible Asperger’s syndrome sufferer’s efforts to read basic social cues, it might as well also refer to Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s (“Headhunters”) exertions to make his film as similar to other biopics as possible.
Disappointingly, “The Imitation Game” never gets to the heart of who Turing was. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he comes across as a feminized version of the drolly verbose, breezily arrogant “Sherlock” character that made the actor famous.
“Mother says I can be off-putting sometimes, on account of being one of the best mathematicians in the world,” the young academic explains coolly to the military commander (Charles Dance) who’s already reluctant to hire him as a code-breaker for MI6.
Even in a room full of math prodigies (played by Hugh Alexander, Allen Leech, and Matthew Beard), Turing stands out with his stutter, stooped shoulders, and inability to get jokes. His only real friend is another outsider: Joan (Keira Knightley), a gifted mathematician who might even be smarter than Turing, but who is employed as a secretary instead of a fellow cryptanalyst because of her gender.
Through historical footage of a huddled and starving nation, Tyldum and writer Graham Moore create a nearly overwhelming sense of wartime urgency, with casualties among the British troops rising by the second. The steady progress toward Turing’s main contribution to the war effort, a proto-computer that deciphers the Nazis’ coded messages, is thus a stirring journey, if also one that tiresomely burnishes the trope of the misfit genius and pits happiness against brilliance.
As fine-tuned and moving a performance as Cumberbatch delivers — all the more impressive for being created from scratch, since no audio or video recordings of Turing exist — the film’s Turing suffers an acute lack of an inner life. He’s no more than an assortment of fears and tics and light-bulb epiphanies, constantly menaced by various authority figures for his homosexuality. Tyldum movingly depicts how Turing’s sexual desires were weaponized against him throughout his life, but it makes the hagiographic mistake of confusing suffering with virtue.
In contrast, Knightley gets at least one great scene in a much less substantial role, when Joan decides that she’ll work around sexism on her own terms. When Turing tries to break off their impromptu engagement by confessing his homosexuality, she shrugs it off, insisting that their marriage would work: they’ll find fulfillment in their work and have each other’s backs at home. Turing, for his part, is afforded no opportunity to respond to his oppression, but is flattened into a saintly victim.
Eventually encompassing a quarter-century, from his hellish boarding-school years during the late 1920s to the criminal prosecution he faced for homosexual acts in the early 1950s, “The Imitation Game” is no less guilty of dutifully cataloging the most eventful incidents of Turing’s brief, over-full life. But a criminal interrogation between Turing and a London detective (Rory Kinnear) and a jumbled chronology that demands the audience pay attention keep the story moving along as smoothly as a toy train.
The romance of patriotism and pain, depicted here in lush greens and velvety blues, makes “The Imitation Game” enjoyable enough to render it a vindication of the formula. It disappoints as biography, but makes for a great yarn, even if you’ve heard it before.
For the record, a previous version of this story swapped Matthew Goode‘s character name and actor Hugh Alexander’s name; TheWrap regrets the error.