The Imitation Game
UK (2014) Dir. Morten Tyldum
One of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars, The Imitation Game takes us back to World War II in order to tell the tale of Alan Turing, the man who built the machine which cracked the German’s “Enigma” code. While the source material is said to be the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film does take some of the typical liberties under the guise of dramatic license associated with big screen adaptations.
The story is told across three eras – in 1928 set in the school days of young Turing (Alex Lawther); in the 1940’s where as an adult Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is hired to join a top secret cryptography team to decrypt message from the Enigma machine; and in 1951 when Turing is arrested for indecency on account of his homosexuality.
Understandably most of the focus is on the middle period and his time at Bletchley Park where he struggled to get his decrypting machine, which he names Christopher (after his first love at school), up and working and yielding results. Working with Turing on cracking Enigma were the trio of puzzle geniuses Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), joined later by Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).
As ever the authorities and upper echelon of the military fail to understand Turing’s idiosyncratic ways, especially his superior Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Turing and the team had an uphill battle to gain any leeway or independence from his interference, but had an ally in MI6 agent Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) whose influence with Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a big help.
The reason for these jumps in time is to illustrate the life Turing led and how at any given stage he was unable to fit in with “normal” society. He was bullied at school and without friends, with the exception of Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon); he was hated by his team in Hut 8 because of his insular nature and humourless ways; and finally he was prosecuted by the law for being gay, which lead to his suicide in 1954.
Watching the portrayal here, I would suggest that Turing may have been on the Autistic spectrum, his behaviour displaying many key symptoms but this would not have been known when this took place. Yet, one of the central themes which the script like to bring up, especially in exchanges between Turing and Joan, as to what “normal” is and that not being “normal” should be embraced – which today we call “thinking outside the box”.
It is therefore fitting that the relationship between Turing and Joan is not conventional either. Because her parents objected to her staying at a complex with and working alongside men, Turing proposes to Joan so she would stay on as husband and wife. Despite making a believable pair there is no romantic spark present but their chemistry and fondness for each other is undeniable. Joan constantly reassures Turing that him being normal is what makes him so special but like all people with low self-esteem, he struggles to see this.
One of the complaints against this film is its historical accuracy. Biopics or those “based on true events” are always going to be subject to some creative tinkering to make the story palpable to a viewing audience. Thus, while some facts – such as Menzies working for Churchill in a timeframe BEFORE he became Prime Minister – should have been double checked, others will be tweaked a little to keep our attention, such as Joan’s hiring via a crossword puzzle Turing compiled and posted in a newspaper when her assignment was via a mutual third party.
The biggest moan appears to be that the Polish didn’t get enough credit for their efforts prior to Turing’s breakthrough. In fact, on two occasions they were mentioned, with Turing saying his machine would be based on the one the Poles built but better. But this is the story of Alan Turing – if you want to learn about the Polish effort either read up on it or wait for that film to be made!
For a film with a Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum of Headhunters fame, and an American scriptwriter – which may explain the slightly mawkish conventional tone and structure – this still has the feel of an all British tale and not just because of the accents either. It is very well shot yet and the CGI battle scenes are very Hollywood, but it has that earnest British grit and honest representation of the country during the war years, a slightly glossier version of a George Formby film from back in the day in feel.
Obviously the film hinges on the performances and thankfully everyone delivers as if they were aware that this was a prestige movie. Benedict Cumberbatch is front and centre in almost every scene of Turing’s adult life and his essaying of this complex character is everything you have heard about it and more. Sensitive, nuanced and astute, Cumberbatch suffuses his role with humanity even in his quirkier moments and when he is being difficult, he is never unlikeable and feels very real.
I’ve never been a fan of Keira Knightely but she was tolerable here, although critics has said her casting made Joan far more glamorous than she was in real life. She did have good chemistry with Cumberbatch as did the other guys in the group, especially Matthew Goode as his biggest rival Hugh, in a solid sparring partner role. Charles Dance was also notable as the pompous Denniston while Mark Strong was typically dark as Menzies.
Against the uproar from the picky few, The Imitation Game is an engrossing and affecting tribute to Alan Turing and his achievements in the war effort, not to mention how Turing was the godfather of the modern computer. Yes it’s a dramatisation but a very well made one which tells an important story.