One of TV's finest hours, and a half Preview: Everything about 'Breaking the Code' on 'Masterpiece Theatre' -- its acting, its writing and its directing -- cries out for superlatives. It's just terrific.

February 01, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If there has been a better performance this television season than the one Derek Jacobi delivers tomorrow night in "Breaking the Code" on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," I missed it.

By comparison, Helen Mirren can fascinate and make you want to know more and more about her Jane Tennison, but Jacobi seems to take you inside the very soul of his Alan Turing -- Englishman, code-breaker, mathematician and persecuted homosexual. It is a trip so intense that I am still seeing images from it in my dreams.

You might sit down in front of the TV set tomorrow night thinking you have nothing in common with this fey intellectual, but I guarantee you will walk away cherishing the 90 minutes spent in his company thanks to Jacobi.

In a time when the word "brilliant" is used to describe freshmen point guards on college basketball teams, Turing's life is a reminder of what the adjective once meant when civilization seemed to hang on the intelligence, courage and integrity of men and women of good will.

Turing is the father of the electronic computer. He came up with the concept and built a prototype for it in the early 1940s -- yes, before Bill Gates was born -- as part of a top secret British effort to break the German "Enigma" code during World War II. Ultimately, he broke the code, which the Nazis were using to deploy U-boats in the North Atlantic, among other offensive strategies.

For his efforts, Turing was inducted into the Order of the British Empire in 1946 at the recommendation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. As an agent from the Ministry of Security puts it at the start of the PBS film, "He was quite a big fish, our Mr. Turing. Winston thought the world of him."

But Winston's not there for him in 1952 when the film opens with Turing in a Manchester police station reporting a minor burglary of his home and lying to the investigating officer about the possible involvement of a young man he had met in a bar and brought home to his bed a few weeks earlier. It is a foolish lie for someone otherwise so incredibly honest as Turing and it sends him down a tragic and heartbreaking path.

The script -- an adaptation by Hugh Whitemore from his London and Broadway play, which starred Jacobi -- is marvelous in its ability to glide from one time period to another ignoring chronology in favor of timeless truths.

It takes us in one quick cut from Turing telling his police interrogator an obvious lie in 1952 to 1929 by picking up a schoolboy friend of Turing's in mid-sentence as he's telling young Turing about a classmate who had been caught cheating on a Latin examination.

"He should never have lied," Turing's friend says. "That was the real mistake. I have some very definite ideas about right and wrong, and it is always wrong to lie."

"Maybe he was afraid," Turing says.

"Of course, he was afraid," the friend responds. "But lying made everything a hundred times worse."

The dialogue not only accomplishes the time shift back to Turing's schooldays, but is also so deft a bit of foreshadowing that it could serve as an epigraph for all that follows.

"Breaking the Code" is filled with so many fine performances and perfectly crafted scenes that you wonder how Whitemore and director Herbert Wise managed to get all of it into just 90 minutes.

Prunella Scales (as Turing's mother) and Richard Johnson (as his supervisor during his days as a code breaker) are superb. Both play their characters in such ways as to perfectly set up a major surprise near the film's end.

There is more fine supporting work yet from Amanda Root (as the woman who loved Turing and wanted marriage despite their sexual incompatibility), Alun Armstrong (as the straight-laced police officer investigating Turing's illegal homosexual relationship) and Harold Pinter (as the menacing agent from the Ministry of Security).

This is a film without a wasted moment -- everything pays off. Compare the final images of Turing's life, as the camera pans the objects in his Manchester house, with the breathless fantasy that Turing, the schoolboy, shares with classmate Christopher Morcon (Blake Ritson) of what their life together could be. The interface of words and images -- hot, idealized fantasy vs. cold, dead reality -- creates a melancholy nearly as distilled and intense as the one F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures near the end of "The Great Gatsby" when Nick Carraway is going through Gatsby's clothes.

"Breaking the Code" is not as grand or large as a novel like "Gatsby." It is, after all, only 90 minutes of television -- 90 minutes of the most intelligent and sensitive television you're ever likely to see.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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