Crossword puzzles and cryptograms are tight-knit forms, designed to have only one solution. Movies, by contrast, can have wiggle room in their meanings and are more interesting to watch if they do. So what happens if you set out to make a movie about a great cryptanalyst? You might find yourself working at cross-purposes, as Morten Tyldum sometimes does in The Imitation Game, a pretty good movie based on a portion of the life of Alan Turing.
I say a portion because Turing, during his all-too-brief forty-one years, achieved more than any randomly selected 10 million people would likely pack into their collective life spans. It was certainly more than will fit into a single film. Working with screenwriter Graham Moore (who has relied on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography), Tyldum necessarily omits large chunks of the career, from Turing’s stints in the United States before and during World War II (episodes that might have situated him among other researchers in a wider world) to his successful forays into fields beyond computer science, such as mathematical biology. For purposes of narrative concision and thematic focus, much of the life, too, is cut away. Tyldum merely alludes in passing—cryptically, I might say—to Turing’s career as a long-distance runner, who competed credibly for a spot on England’s 1948 Olympic marathon team. Occasional images of Benedict Cumberbatch huffing around a track are inserted without explanation, leaving you to understand nothing about this behavior except the pain and desperation creasing the actor’s sliver-of-sky eyes.
Why should Cumberbatch seem to be fleeing something nameless and terrible, rather than running toward the prospect of a gold medal? Because in composing The Imitation Game, Tyldum uses the tight-knit method, presenting Turing only as a creature of secrets. Some (notably the German military’s Enigma code) he cracks to historic effect, while others—principally his love for men—he conceals for dear life.
Tyldum handles the latter aspect of the story so decorously that you might almost imagine Turing never had sex at all. Apart from one catastrophic encounter with a hustler, which happens off-screen, his relationships with men are limited in the movie to a sweet but chaste schoolboy friendship. And yet, locking in the theme of a clandestine life, Tyldum makes a frame story out of the police investigation of Turing’s homosexuality, his prosecution on charges of gross indecency and his untimely death (by suicide, according to the official report, though doubts have been raised). Reproducing what has become the conventional narrative about Turing, The Imitation Game retrospectively imposes a tragic meaning on all the events you see in flashback.
Let me say at once that it would be difficult to think of anything so stupid as the British government’s punishing Alan Turing for acting on his sexual desires, unless it would be the royal pardon extended to him posthumously in 2013 for having done nothing wrong in the first place. Of course The Imitation Game has to address this horror. The problem is that Tyldum does so in a way that almost contradicts the point his screenplay has been laboring to make.