Unless you’re reading this on a hand-transcribed copy of this webpage, you owe Alan Turing a debt: arguably your life, possibly your freedom and certainly your computer, tablet and smartphone.
Turing lead the team that cracked the infamous Enigma Code which crippled the Nazis and won WWII, using a machine that would become the inspiration for the modern computer. The Imitation Game (based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges) sees Benedict Cumberbatch take on the role of Turing in a film that follows the mathematician from his school years, through his ground-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the war and up to his eventual suicide.
It’s tough to make a thriller around a historical period whose outcome is already well documented, and despite its best efforts to build tension and slowly unravel the outcome of the war, the writing’s on the wall if you’ve even a passing interest in modern history. Does Turing’s team crack the code? Do the Nazis eventually fall? Spoiler alert: er, yes. While the journey to the team’s achievement is an interesting one, it’s hard to maintain that edge-of-your-seat suspense, no matter how many times Turing’s stressed team gets in a fluster and pushes its papers off a desk.
What’s more insightful is the glimpse into “Turing: The Man”. Cumberbatch is always a “banker” when it comes to his performances, but is truly magnificent as the awkward, troubled Turing. Turing was both naive and arrogant -- and possibly borderline autistic, as history documents. Cumberbatch has the difficult role of making us empathise with a man who perhaps wasn’t always very likeable, and does so with aplomb -- all broken sentences and frenzied flashes of intellectual brilliance. Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, the only female member of the Enigma Code-cracking team, is also on fine form, getting the most out of her plummy accent and a perfect, grounded foil for Turing’s insular brilliance. Pals off screen too, Knightley and Cumberbatch’s scenes together are some of the film’s best moments, with Knightley seeming far more comfortable in a supporting role.
Cumberbatch also delicately handles Turing’s eventual demise. Prosecuted for his homsexuality in 1952 (back when it was still illegal), Turing was chemically castrated and became a shadow of his former self before committing suicide. But while the film has no qualms about showing Turing as a quivering wreck as a result of the treatment, it seems to shy away from his sexuality -- Cumberbatch is never shown engaging sexually with another man, and his relationship with Knightley’s Clarke is given far more significance than perhaps history dictates it should. It’s a missed opportunity; ironic, given that a film celebrating this oft-overlooked genius falls foul to the same prudishness that would eventually indirectly kill him. Scenes exploring Turing’s sexuality are therefore mostly left to the surprisingly-brilliant Alex Lawther, the school-age Turing whose blossoming intellectual romance with classmate Christopher Morcom becomes the true emotional core of the film.
The Imitation Game itself is a bit of an enigma then -- a strong cast let down by a script that seems intent on chasing the lowest-common-denominator-Oscar-audience. “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine," is the film’s awkward (and awkwardly often repeated) tagline -- it’s a shame then that such a brilliant man couldn’t inspire a more imaginative and open-minded approach to the telling of his story.
The Imitation Game hits cinemas on November 14th.