The Imitation Game


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Imitation Game
"The kind of period drama that screams “festival launch” but doesn’t trust its audience enough to tell its story subtly or with any surprises."

The story of Alan Turing is certainly one that deserves to be told. Turing was the closeted gay mathematics Professor and cryptologist whose work during the Second World War resulted in the German Enigma military code being broken. He is also famous for his work in computer science, but was also tragically condemned to sterilisation and eventual suicide following a conviction for indecency in the post-war period. He was a largely unknown figure until recent years when true story of the Bletchley Park code breaking team was revealed. The Imitation Game, launching the London Film Festival, is Headhunters director Morten Tyldum’s shot at telling this story. Tyldum has recruited Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch for the lead role as the enigmatic, socially inept and repressed genius. The result is a solid, workmanlike effort - the kind of period drama that screams “festival launch” but doesn’t trust its audience enough to tell its story subtly or with any surprises.

Tyldum, working to Graham Moore’s screenplay, tells Turing’s wartime and post-war exploits by jumping between three different periods of his life: his wartime work in Hut 8 at the codebreaking nerve centre Bletchley Park along with a team of fellow linguists and mathematicians; his painful childhood experiences in boarding school where his first feelings of homosexual desire emerge for his schoolmate Christopher; and the cascade of events that led to Turing’s discovery as a gay man in 1951 when this was a criminal offence. These periods are recreated in lush detail thanks to production design from Maria Djurkovic (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), with locations including the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre itself. The star prop is the Enigma-cracking machine, a mass of moving, clunking cogs surround by a forest of red wires that looks like the world’s biggest phone relay.

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These three periods also serve as a means of establishing an allegory-laden, thematic through line for Turing. As a child we see him learn the art of concealing his true feelings through a discovery of cryptography, which becomes his and Christopher’s shared secret. As an adul Turing’s genius combined with his tight self-control has led to him becoming an arrogant, aloof and socially useless mathematician who almost gets himself thrown out of his interview with his commanding officer Denniston (a scenery-chewing Charles Dance) as he seeks to join the Bletchley Park team during the war’s early years. Only by opening himself up to human contact: as personified by fellow analyst Joan Clark (a sprightly Keira Knightley) and his team - which is led by the caddish Hugh Alexander (an underused Matthew Goode) - can Turing really crack the “unbreakable” German code.

The gigantic code-breaking machine which Turing proceeds to build, at great expense and to the frustration of his superiors, comes to symbolise not only his unrequited desire for his friend Christopher (this film version of Turing names it ‘Christopher’) but also his attempt to escape from the torment being trapped in this repressed life and body has caused him via a machine that can think, but not judge. Post-war, Turing is finally confronted with the destruction of the careful shield, the “imitation game” of life, he has constructed for himself, and stands revealed as a man.

There is a lot of interesting material here for a filmmaker to play with, and plenty of opportunity to make compelling comparisons and contrasts between Turing’s expertise with cryptography and machines and his utter inability to fully grasp the codes of regular people's lives. But although Tyldum and Moore have the always-compelling and energetic Cumberbatch on screen at almost every moment, and manage to keep the tension up via visual and dialogue reminders that the code breakers’s failure means more lost lives (at one point Mark Strong’s shady MI6 character points out that simply having a chat about Enigma has meant three lives lost), too much of the execution feels ham-fisted, generic and artificial.

I admit to not knowing the full story behind Turing’s exploits, but scenes such as that when Turing has a “Eureka” moment in a pub after finally catching a snippet of sexually-charged conversation, smack of contrivance. Likewise, the allegories within the script are so clearly signposted, it feels as though the characters are holding up cue cards at certain points. Is it really necessary to show an audience a repressed Turing at school actually being handed a cryptography book by Christopher, only to then see him question as to why all conversation isn't just a form of code for hiding true feelings? Likewise, when Keira Knightley’s character is mistaken repeatedly for a secretary at her crossword quiz entry exam at Bletchley Park (is this really how they were recruited?), it is hard not to feel, as she impertinently demands to be let through, that this is the diversity message being rammed home.

It is not that the intentions of the filmmakers are not noble, they simply feel the need to keep showing us the mechanics of it all. This is one of those films where, in case we forgot we were in the Secon World War, the filmmakers lace in umpteen segments of newsreel footage and contemporary radio broadcasts to get us up to date on the progress of the war. Why couldn't we just establish this from the dialogue of the codebreaker team?

I would have preferred the focus to shift more onto the actually gritty mechanics of code breaking, but though the film has some interesting detail of the particular challenges to entertain us with (the team for example only have 24 hours in between German code changes to crack the code, fail and they have to entirely start again), we don't really get a detailed breakdown of how the Enigma decryption machine worked and the specific challenges in building it. Perhaps this was just too complicated to explain to a lay audience. But recent films such as The Social Network and Moneyball are movies that are far more successful at explaining, in an engrossing and illuminating way, their own technically complex computer systems and “geniuses” at the heart of their plots. Those films also used their supporting casts better.

It is right that Turing be honoured for the work he did, but this is no more than a competent, old-fashioned effort at doing so.

Reviewed on: 08 Oct 2014
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Alan Turing helps crack the Enigma code.
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