From The Archives: The Imitation Game

Originally posted 2014 | Written by Killian O’Dwyer

“Are you paying attention?”, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing asks a police officer. He’s about to tell the policeman – and, by extension, us – his whole story. Turing’s quiet and dignified interrogation in a small, cold police station room frames most of The Imitation Game as a retelling, in Turing’s own words, of his role in the British effort in World War II and of his life.

Alan Turing, though consigned to secrecy in his time, was recognised by Winston Churchill as having the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. He was a mathematician, a cryptanalysist, and a pioneering computer scientist; he led the team which cracked the German Enigma code, which is estimated to have shortened the war by about two years. Sorry, spoilers, but this is history. Alan Turing was also gay, and the country he worked so hard to help during the war turned and prosecuted him for this, leading to what was, for such an important man, a tragic end.

The film takes us first back to the late 1930s, where an arrogant and blunt Turing signs up to work at Bletchley Park, Britain’s military code-breaking centre. Though not personable in the slightest, Turing believes himself the country’s best shot at cracking the Enigma code. After a briefing in which we are told just how important and close to impossible this task is (the Enigma code was thought to be uncrackable, with millions of millions of possible combinations, reset literally every day), we set about following Turing and his team struggle with each other, the higher-ups in the military who do not believe in the worth of their project, and with time and the death toll of the war to crack the fiendishly complex code.

Cumberbatch plays Turing expertly. While one could accuse the casting department of the film of making a predictable choice (who better to play an intense, stand-offish genius than Sherlock Holmes?), Cumberbatch does pull through and distinguish his Turing from his beloved take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. The latter’s arrogance is married with a sense of mid-century British propriety and reserve, and Cumberbatch does stand out once again as one of the foremost British actors of the day. Concerns and criticisms were levelled at The Imitation Game early in its production for neglecting the realities of Turing’s sexuality, particularly in casting Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, who seemed set to play something between plucky female sidekick and love interest. However, Clarke’s role in the story is kept true-to-life and is compellingly portrayed by Knightley. Joan Clarke was a practical woman, a mathematical genius and, for a while, Turing’s romantic partner. She also has to negotiate the in-built sexism of the military in order to even get hired, and acknowledges this plainly on many an occasion. Most strikingly, she frankly telling Turing that she is “a woman in a man’s job,” and therefore doesn’t have “the luxury of being an ass,” a luxury he tends to indulge in.

Turing’s sexuality is not brought into the film for a while, although it is heavily suggested through somewhat incongruous childhood flashbacks. In a way, the film does still sidestep the issue of Turing’s sexuality by never showing him witha man in a romantic or sexual sense, and the war effort does take precedence over his personal struggles in the narrative and tone of the film. However, the importance of Turing’s sexuality to him and his story is not overlooked, particularly in how it led to the torturous treatment he received after his conviction.

You don’t go to see a film about the man who cracked the Enigma code without knowing that he did, in fact, crack the Enigma code. It’s hard to engage the audience in the suspense of “who will win the war?” We sort of know.

It is such human issues that are the most engaging in the film. As a result, the long second act, detailing the effort to crack the code and Turing’s personal battle to sustain his incredibly expensive project, does drag on. It simply does not flow as well as the rest of the film. Such is often the trouble with biographical films: the audience knows what happens. It’s history. You don’t go to see a film about the man who cracked the Enigma code without knowing that he did, in fact, crack the Enigma code. It’s hard to engage the audience in the suspense of “who will win the war?” We sort of know.

 While the second act doesn’t quite enthral, the concluding forty or so minutes stand out from the rest of the film. It is here that the focus turns from the battle against the clock to crack the code and instead to moral crises, relationships and a conspiracy or two while powering through the final years of the war and its aftermath. By the time the film draws to its inevitable sad end, we are truly captivated. As with all biographical dramas, it then reminds us that the story was true. Alan Turing was treated appallingly by the government he worked to defend, and this film does do his story justice. While it falls a bit flat in the middle, strong performances from the whole cast and the sting of historical accuracy make this a compelling and, on the whole, well-executed film.


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