Having written recently about a film based on a true story (American Sniper), a story that I knew little of prior to the film, I find myself in a similar position this week. Alan Turing’s name was a bit more familiar to me than Chris Kyle’s was, since he had made important contributions in the fields of mathematics and artificial intelligence. (“Turing machine” was the name given to describe, theoretically, machines that would eventually become known as computers, and the “Turing test” was an indirect inspiration for the “Voight-Kampff” test used by Philip K. Dick’s hero Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, filmed by Ridley Scott under the more familiar name Blade Runner.) The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (the Norwegian’s first English-language film) is not the first film about the work done at Bletchley Park; Enigma (Michael Apted, 2001), is a dramatic account of those events, based on a novel by Robert Harris. (The screenplay was Tom Stoppard’s.) And I knew something of these machines as a tourist, visiting places like the Spy Museum in DC. I also knew that Turing was charged with the then-crime of homosexuality and that it led to his early death by suicide. But all this just means that I knew a wee bit more about Alan Turin than I did about Chris Kyle.
While The Imitation Game is based on a biography of Turing, it very clearly utilizes the persona of Benedict Cumberbatch – apparently himself a distant relative of Turing – that he has cultivated with the enormous success of the BBC Sherlock. That persona is a man of great intellectual gift but poor social skills. There is more than a touch of Sherlock in the Turing we see in the first few scenes of the film; he heads to Bletchley Park with a good deal of confidence that he can be of help to the military, even though the entire efforts to break the Enigma code are top secret – so secret that there is an entire MI division that no one knows about that’s recruiting select brains to crack the code. Turing is initially part of a team, but he resolutely works on his own, and when his demands for funds for a machine to crack Enigma are turned down, he writes to Downing Street -- and not only gets his money, but gets the authority to head the project, which allows him to fire some of the team.
Unlike Sherlock, however, we see Turing’s social awkwardness in a much more painful light, courtesy of childhood flashbacks which show a young Turing having symptoms of OCD and getting bullied because of it. He manages to gain the sympathy of one friend, Christopher, who will introduce him to the world of cryptography. Christopher becomes the name of the machine Turing devises to try cracking Enigma; it’s easy enough to see that Alan was in love with Christopher, whose sexuality is never revealed, since he died not too long after the friendship with Alan was struck (due to a long fight with tuberculosis – this death is not revealed in the film until near its end).
Christopher has a parallel character in Joan Clarke, the sole woman on the Enigma team, whose story has remained largely obscured in the efforts to honor Turing as a compensation for his mistreatment by a set of rules that no longer exist. It is Clarke who helps Turing find some way of making at least civil connections with the other men on the team, and this pays dividends when they stand up to the Naval officer who threatens to pull the plug (yes, literally, really) on the machine. Despite an engaging performance by Keira Knightley, the role is pretty clichéd – the Woman Behind the Great Man. Turing’s marriage proposal – however complex it might have felt for Turing in real life – is presented here as a blatant pretext to keep Clarke on the project instead of going back to London to her parents (who disapprove of their unmarried daughter living far away from them).
The film’s editing shifts among three distinct time frames: Turing’s friendship with Christopher, the Enigma project, and a present-day (1951) investigation of a break-in at Turing’s home that leads to charges of indecency being brought against Turing, then a respected university professor. This investigation provides the frame story, giving Turing a chance to explain to the lead detective what he really did during the war – effective if shopworn as a dramatic device. Sometimes titles tell us where we are; sometimes not, though their placement seems haphazard. For a film that has as its central drama the race against time, The Imitation Game certainly presents that race a bit sloppily.
The theme of the film is secrecy – and perhaps the drawing of the line between secrecy and privacy. Turing confesses to one of his co-workers, John Cairncross, that, despite his engagement to Joan, he’s gay. But Cairncross himself is carrying his own secret, that he’s a Soviet spy. (Perhaps that’s why he’s so calm when hearing Turing’s confession.) Turing has to lie to Joan’s parents about the kind of work she’s being asked to do at Bletchley Park. And the MI6 commander has a few secrets up his sleeve too (including the destruction of pretty much everything connected with the project after the war’s end). Indeed, when the machine finally breaks the Enigma code – in one of the film’s most satisfying if obvious moments – Turing realizes that they will have to selectively use the information they gain by cracking the code in order to keep the Germans from realizing that it has been cracked. I suppose it makes perfect sense that a closeted homosexual math genius would be the one to play such a central part in cracking one of the most complicated intellectual secrets of the 20th century. Which is another way of stating the film’s feel-good message, repeated by Christopher, and echoed, through Turing, by Joan in the film’s final moments, as Turing has opted for “chemical castration” as an alternative to prison time.
The film’s strengths lie with the cast; despite being given some pretty typical roles, the actors who are on the team give their characters a decent amount of depth. We sense their frustration as the end of a 24 hour period means the wasting of a day’s work on Engima (which resets every 24 hours, which is why there were so many combinations possible), but we also feel their agony when they discover that knowing the code doesn’t mean immediate victory. Cumberbatch is particularly good as Turing, showing the shifting moods and perceptions of the professor who doesn’t think much of war, but becomes a crucial strategist once the code is broken, and who dislikes the various double-cross games British military intelligence is playing. Especially noticeable is Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Turing’s quasi-rival, and Rory Kinnear holds up well in the limited role of the detective trying to get at Turing’s military record and coming up against literal blanks. The story it tells is compelling, though it must rely on closing titles to tell us what the Enigma code-cracking meant in terms of helping the allied forces win the war. And because it is a British production, it has that classic sheen of the historical drama, that makes it rise above the sentiment of an After School Special, even though that’s at heart what it is. Also, dramatizing the cracking of Enigma makes for much more compelling drama than debating the intelligence of machines. (Save that for the next Transformers movie. I’m kidding.)