The Imitation Game

Posted: November 27, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

In 1951 the home of Professor Alan Turing is burgled but nothing is taken. The case is investigated by Detective Nock (a wonderfully crumpled Rory Kinnear) who suspects something odd is going on, in particular when he discovers that Turing’s war record doesn’t exist…

During the early days of World War 2 we see Alan Turing interviewed for a mysterious job at Bletchley Park by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). Whilst Denniston finds Turing annoying, he is impressed when Turing correctly guesses that the job in question is to break the German’s Enigma code, and Turing is hired.

Whilst initially working under Hugh Alexander (Mathew Goode) Turing eventually becomes leader of the team. He hires new members, including Joan Clarke (Knightley), and focuses funding into the building of a code breaking computer he names Christopher, much to the chagrin of his fellow code breakers who think it is a waste of time and money.

With the war going badly, rumours of a soviet spy in the camp, and Denniston’s increasing desire to get rid of him, Turing frantically tries to get Christopher to work. Meanwhile in 1951 revelations of Turing’s secret life threaten his career, whilst in the 1920s we get a glimpse of his schooldays, and some of the events that shaped the man…

There is something very old fashioned about The Imitation Game, and yet at the same time something thoroughly modern. To begin with it seems like pretty standard fare, lots of stiff upper lips and plummy accents, an underdog who gains the respect of his peers and saves the day, but the film works on several levels and, as it progresses it gives us so much more than this, taking the story into darker and more devious places than you might have imagined, and even if you think you know the story of Alan Turing the chances are you don’t know everything.

It’s difficult to review the film without reference to some spoilers, I think they’re fairly common knowledge but if you don’t know much about Turing or World War 2, and you plan to see the film, you might want to stop reading now…

…Still there? Ok, hopefully most people will be aware that we won World War 2, in large part down to those at Bletchley Park, primarily Turing, who broke the Enigma code. It’s also common knowledge that Turing was a homosexual, and at that he likely committed suicide after being chemically castrated for his ‘supposed’ deviance.

Given these facts it’s to the filmmakers credit that they still manage to wring tension out of the decryption of Enigma, especially given that for large portions of the film this comes down to watching a big clunking computer made up of cogs whirring, yet there is a palpable thrill when the code breakers realise the key to untangling Enigma, a few words encoded within every message, and there’s more than a hint of amusing irony in those words as well.

It’s worth noting as well that despite Turing’s proclivities his cack-handed proposal and engagement to Joan still manages to be so sweet, and it’s nice to see a relationship that doesn’t follow the rigid lines normally associated with a filmic relationship between a man and a woman. Although I can see how some would perceive the focus on his relationship with Joan as somehow shying away from his homosexuality I found if anything that it reinforced his true nature.

Whether or not Cumberbatch will be rewarded for his efforts come awards season is something I can’t foresee, however I really hope he is, because he proves yet again what a powerful actor he is. In some respects his Turing has facets in common with Sherlock, whilst in others the two men couldn’t be more different. Both are incredibly intelligent, and both struggle connecting with their fellow human beings, but whilst Sherlock’s indifference comes down to clinical superiority, Turing is far more human, he simply struggles to read other’s emotions. It’s never explicitly said, but the inference is that he had Asperger’s to some degree. Odd, obsessed and not exactly user friendly, it’s to Cumberbatch’s credit that he imbues the man with so much humanity.

Knightley does the best she can with the character of Joan, and though for a lot of the film all that’s required of her is a jolly hockey sticks attitude, when called upon she delivers some powerful scenes, most notably when Turing breaks off their engagement.

There’s able support all round, Charles Dance rarely turns in a poor performance and Mark Strong is equally good as the Machiavellian head of MI6. Special mention must go to Alex Lawther as the young Turing. At times his performance rivals that of Cumberbatch.

A few scenes of German bombers and U-Boats aside there’s little in the way of action, and the facts of the story are well known enough that there aren’t too many major surprises. The soviet agent subplot feels forced and, oddly, the story does feel quite contrived at times, and you have to keep reminding yourself that this did really happen, but this is a fascinating story, well told, about a man who should be lauded and championed not only for his wartime achievements, but also his importance to the development of computers, and yet who, due to the age in which he lived, ended up a mere footnote of history for far too many years.

Some films are good, and some films are important. The Imitation Game manages to be both, for a film about imitation this is the real deal.

  1. Mim says:

    It sounds really good. But I cannot watch Cumberbatch! His face weirds me out.

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