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film review

Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is depicted as a charging, relentless but hopelessly maladroit puppy-man, but fundamentally adorable because we know his heart’s in the right place.Jack English

For a movie about secrets and lies, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is surprisingly coy when it comes to revealing anything that might compromise its own game, which is playing by the classical Hollywood rulebook of telling us only what we need to know to keep cheering for the team. Although it's a game the movie plays very well, you wonder whether the cost of the final victory hasn't been at the expense of a far greater and more challenging match. You wonder if you haven't been played.

Based on Andrew Hodges's book Alan Turing: The Enigma, Norwegian filmmaker Tyldum's first English-language movie tells the story of the man – played with predictable irresistibility by Benedict Cumberbatch – who cracked the formidably impregnable Enigma code the Nazis developed to keep the movements and strategies of their forces secret, in the process saving the lives of millions and shortening the war by an estimated two years. But there were catches. Not only was Turing, brilliant but infuriating, likely situated on the autism scale and therefore almost as puzzled by basic codes of human interaction as the Allies were by the Nazi Enigma program, he was gay and lived inside a code of his own.

Flashing repeatedly back and forward from the moment in 1953, when a reported robbery in Turing's Manchester flat leads to an investigation that results in charges of indecent behaviour – and Turing's subsequent, tragic final months enduring a court-ordered hormonal treatment commonly called "chemical castration" – The Imitation Game sets itself up as an inspirational account of a heroic but misunderstood eccentric outlier, a man whose largely benign (even comically lovable) displays of persistent weirdness are themselves code for visionary. Although everyone else looks at Alan Turing, with his gimlet eyes and voice like poured caramel, and sees an odd duck swimming upstream, the casting of Cumberbatch and calculated reminders of past heartbreak ensure we know we're looking at a swan.

From the extended "Who's-on-first?" job-interview exchange Turing has with the adversarially unsympathetic Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), through the former mathematician's obsessive and controlling campaign to build a machine (a proto-computer) that will intercept Enigma by virtually out-thinking it, Turing is depicted as a charging, relentless but hopelessly maladroit puppy-man, capable of snapping and causing a mess, but fundamentally adorable because we know what everyone he's annoying doesn't: Alan may be odd, but his heart's in the right place. He's saving the world. A geek superhero in tweed.

The movie's Social Network-copping poster notwithstanding, The Imitation Game is in no mood to confront us with our own propensities for rushed judgment or intolerance. Where Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's film was a deeply ambivalent character, as motivated by ego and score-settling post-teenage vindictiveness in designing Facebook as he was hooking up friends, Turing is an open vessel for our identification and sympathy, a living embodiment of a line repeated so often in the movie it assumes the status of not-so-subliminal tagline for itself: "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine." Somebody hand that boy a cape.

Although sturdy enough in the middlebrow entertainment department, and handsomely mounted in a stiff upper-lip, prestige period-piece sort of way, The Imitation Game is ultimately a frightfully ordinary sort of seasonal ritual, the kind of based-on-a-true inspirational story the British have turned into something of a domestic industry since Hollywood largely abnegated the adult drama in favour of more lavishly spectacular diversions.

As uncomplicatedly likeable and effortlessly rootable as its main character and star, The Imitation Game ultimately wins at any easy game, when it could have risked – and revealed – so much more. If Turing even had a sex life beyond those bracketing experiences at middle school and Manchester, they're nowhere evident here, and if his behaviour sometimes struck his colleagues and superiors as less than endearingly maddening and eccentric, that, too, is kept largely encoded. Even Turing's purely tactical marriage to the equally brilliant proto-feminist code-cracker, Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley), is offered as almost stupefyingly devoid of knottiness. Finally, not even the final persecution for "indecency," made possible largely because Turing's heroic wartime activities were kept secret from the public, bites too deeply. You're far more likely to be left sad than angry, and tears spill more easily than blood.