By Ed Symkus
More Content Now

It seems to be a good time for based-on-fact movies about smart British people. “The Theory of Everything” is earning accolades, and will probably garner an Oscar nomination or two, for its story of Stephen Hawking. And now we’ve got “The Imitation Game” and the lesser-known but, in some circles, equally important Alan Turning, the man responsible for breaking a German coding system and cutting down the length of World War II.


It’s one of those films that jumps around in time, ostensibly to build tension and to flesh out certain characters by explaining what makes them tick. It jumps around a bit too much for some tastes, mine included, but the story and characters are fascinating enough to get by that glitch.


It kicks off in 1951, just after Professor Turing’s home in Manchester, England, has been ransacked, and police are trying to figure out what happened. Suddenly we’re thrown back to 1939, where the then-27-year-old mathematician is applying for a government job north of London at a place called Bletchley Radio Manufacturers. But they don’t really make radios. England’s Secret Intelligence Service, then known as MI6, had gotten their hands on a German encryption machine called Enigma. The Allies could intercept messages about German military secrets but couldn’t read them, as the codes were regularly changed.


The idea was to build a team of experts at Bletchley who could crack the code(s). But when Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) applied, he made it clear to the no-nonsense man in charge, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) that one, he’s a pacifist, and two, that he works better alone, rather than as part of any team. That boast-like statement begins the touchy relationship between the two men that consisted of each one disliking the other’s attitude.


Still, a team did come together, and the script alludes to the idea that though none of them had military minds, they were all good at crossword puzzles, at figuring things out. And Turing did manage to become the team’s leader, though he often worked on his own. Apparently it was his idea to build a British machine that would help them figure out the German machine.


Back in the late-’30s and early-’40s, it was unheard of, at least in Great Britain, for a woman to do the work of men, and so the addition of the crossword puzzle-savvy and quite brainy Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) is kind of a shock or maybe an annoyance to the rest of the crew. But she, too, becomes an important part of what’s going on at Bletchley.


Knightley also provides a great acting partner for Cumberbatch. Their duo scenes together – for instance, when she tries to get him to be “more likable” – are some of the best in the film, providing a completely opposite atmosphere from the uncomfortable (but also excellent) ones between Cumberbatch and Dance.


The film is mostly a study of Turing, and how he did and/or didn’t work with others. Cumberbatch plays him as self-absorbed and just a bit mischievous but completely serious about the task at hand. His finest moments are when his Turing silently reaches a goal or finally understands something he’s been trying to figure out, and a look of excited contentment spreads over his face.


There are separate stories of the personal relationship between Turing and Clarke, and of a tragedy in his long-ago school days past that keeps haunting him, and there’s some drama about his personal life that comes on a bit thick in the last half-hour. But all of it is important in getting the story told.


Along the way in that telling, director Morten Tyldum keeps the pace slow, and gives the film the shape of a quiet, ticking-clock thriller. He also takes time out to show off some stunning visual work, especially when presenting his vision of the London Blitz of 1940. German planes are dropping bombs on the city, and we’re up in those planes. Then we’re down in the subway tunnels, huddling for shelter with the citizenry. Later we’re out in the streets, surveying the post-bombing rubble.


History tells us that Turing and his team succeeded at their task. But a whole other layer of intrigue, about some negative effects of their accomplishments, enters late in the film, as does another layer, concerning Turing’s private life, after that. Though a true hero, Turing came to a bad ending, in the eyes of the government, but was posthumously given a royal pardon for his “wrongs” in 2013. This film helps to bring on some of the deserved justice.


Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.


THE IMITATION GAME
Written by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum
With Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong
Rated PG-13