by Philip Price
There is a line that is repeated several times in director Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” that reassures our lead character that, “Sometimes it is the people we imagine nothing of, who do the things we cannot imagine.”
This applies to our protagonist Alan Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing has now come to be renowned as the brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who broke the German Enigma code in World War II that won the war quicker and as a result saved millions of lives. This man who seemingly would need to have everything going for him to come to such a prosperous title is given the aforementioned advice though because he is challenged every step of the way. It is clear from the moment we meet Cumberbatch’s Turing that he suffers from some high level of Asperger’s syndrome in that his demeanor is not simply an irrational genius routine, but a degree of social awkwardness that conveys an inability to truly relate with those around him because he likely feels no one truly understands him. In coming at the world from his unique perspective, Turing sees human beings as simply being too selfish to make the sacrifices necessary to stave off the mental and physical threat posed by the enemies of his country. This leads to the creation of what is essentially the first computer that, while saving large parts of humanity that would have otherwise been lost, requires an equal amount of restraint that will knowingly allow people to die. It is only the ability to both create and be disconnected that the best definition of a perspective success can be claimed and Turing had the mentality and genius to see both through. Yes, in war there are countless deceptions and non-democratic decisions being made which, as long as they are for the seeming good of humanity, remain completely acceptable. It is on this fine line that the most interesting ideals are born from the film as Turing learns not only how to gauge his intelligence, but how best to use it. There is much to be admired in Tyldum’s rather straightforward biopic that despite being as by-the-numbers as one can imagine, is consistently enhanced by its exceedingly fascinating story.
We begin in 1939 with a 27-year-old Turing interviewing for a job with the Secret Intelligence Service. More specifically he will be working in Military Intelligence, Section 6, which supplies the British government with foreign intelligence. He doesn’t make the best of first impressions given his nature, but he says enough to enlighten Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to the fact he would be a valuable commodity. We then jump to 1951 and what is the films framing device as Turing is being investigated by a local detective named Nock (Rory Kinnear). He is brought in on charges of lewd conduct with a man, but the detective doesn’t seem as interested in the charges as he does Turing’s lack of military records in what amounts to a large gap in his life during the time of the war. While this device is clearly used to both touch more largely on the homosexual aspect of Turing’s life and to paint a picture of how far he was pushed resulting in his eventual suicide it almost feels a bit unnecessary. Cumberbatch is given a voice over at the beginning of the film that sets things up as if this were going to be something of a mystery, but there is no hiding the truth of what Turing did with his time during the war and so as we listen closely and Nock is given the information to the fill in the gaps what we’re actually getting is nothing more than the reliable way of telling a biopic. Throughout the main narrative that consists of 1939 to 1941 or so, there are also flashbacks to 1928 when Turing was a young boy in boarding school. These flashbacks are used as a way to further correlate the social awkwardness of Turing in his adult life while foreshadowing the tragedy that would follow in his later years. It is standard practice as far as these biopics go, but it is understandable as to why they follow this type of formula as it easily conveys the main points of a person’s life without allowing itself to become too bogged down in details. Turing’s life was anything but standard and thus keeps the way in which his story is told on its toes, not allowing the content to ever become as rote as the base the movie is built on.
For me, what is so fascinating about “The Imitation Game” is that it basically serves as a two hour, behind-the-scenes featurette of sorts. It is as if we are privy to how a war is actually won, that there really aren’t any chances taken, but that there is in fact a logic to it all. The romanticism of how we perceive such a victory as the battle of Normandy are brought to light as massive productions coldly calculated by people such as Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) who serves as the director while Turing is something of a production designer setting up when and where we are allowed to use his invention to save people and when saving people would be going too far and allowing the Germans to know their code had been cracked. In seeing how this type of strategy was even made possible it is as if we are seeing a film crew prepare to shoot a film and the film we’re watching is a special feature. As someone who loves the art of cinema and generally finds history inherently interesting, this made for an experience that opened up a world of themes and ever-changing ideals about how the world really works. Director Tyldum essentially wants to ask the audience who Alan Turing really was by consistently keeping an air of mystery around the character as he focuses more and more on the completion of his electro-mechanical bombe machine that, if successful, would be capable of breaking 3,000 Enigma-generated naval codes a day. This mission is the driving force of the film’s narrative while the politics swirling around it (if it is necessary, if it is worth the risk and if Turing is trustworthy or if he’s just mad) all contribute to further the analogy of a behind the scenes feature in that it could just as easily be a studio wavering on whether or not to make a film that shows promise, but could end up being a dud. While the structures of these endeavors are similar, clearly war is a much more serious subject and people’s lives are more delicate than box office returns which makes Graham Moore’s script adapted from Andrew Hodges book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” all the more fascinating for including deeper themes concerning our attraction to violence and how thinking or working differently doesn’t mean the opposite is nothing. A big part of Turing’s mentality was coming at things from a different perspective and each theme brought up or exemplified is integral to better understanding our misunderstood protagonist.
Elevating the film even further from the doldrums of its conventional storytelling methods are the performances set forth by its strong cast. As Turing, Cumberbatch offers another excellent performance by playing the whole irrational genius routine well. He not only plays up the credibility of this well-worn regimen by adding a touch of humor to Turing’s level of genius, but more than anything he exemplifies it through the connections he forms with the people around him. Especially enlightening is the bond he forms with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Clarke was clearly a genius in her own right who was persuaded by her parents to meet the standard ways of the world by getting married, having kids and getting the kind of job women were expected to take at that point in time. In her though, Turing saw not a person or archetype, but a brain; someone he could connect with intellectually and the rare opportunity to have free-wheeling conversation where he would not be judged or looked down upon because of his personality or desire to generally be left alone. Clarke becomes his link to social acceptance. She displays to Turing ways in which he can make his fellow code breakers and mathematicians feel more comfortable around him. Turing and Clarke loved one another, clearly, but like almost everything else in Turing’s life, it is an unconventional love. Their love was purely a meeting of the minds. Though they would never desire the sexual aspects of a relationship with one another, they would more than make up for it in terms of being happy to share each other’s company. I appreciated the frankness with which the film approached this circumstance and rather than turning it into a point for melodrama, allowed it to play out as only rational, logic-minded academics like Turing and Clarke would. Other members of Turing’s team include Hugh (Matthew Goode), John (Allen Leech), Peter (Matthew Beard) and Jack (James Northcote). Goode and Leech receive the more prominent roles as Hugh is the assigned leader and bit of a cad while John reaches a level of comfortability with Turing that is both reassuring and cause for tension. In the end, “The Imitation Game” is a handsomely made film with another wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat and superb pacing from editor William Goldenberg that shines light on a man who wanted to use his gifts to do the world as much good as he could even when the world seemed to so frequently turn its back on him.