Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game highlights a terrible wrongdoing, namely the treatment of British computer scientist, mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) after World War II, when he was prosecuted for homosexual activities under archaic gross indecency laws. After a guilty verdict Turing accepted ‘treatment’ of oestrogen injections – a form of chemical castration – as an alternative to prison, and subsequently purportedly committed suicide by cyanide poisoning in 1954, days before his 42nd birthday (though there is evidence to suggest that this was accidental). As such this is a well-intentioned fact-based biopic, briefly drawing attention to the 49,000 other men who suffered the same conviction, although the primary focus of this film is on Turing’s important work during World War II at Bletchley Park.
As is widely known today, Turing was instrumental in decrypting the ciphers of the German Enigma machine, leading a team of codebreakers who – according to some historians – ensured that the war ended two years early (and thus saved anything up to 14,000,000 lives, though how such figures can be estimated with any kind of accuracy after factoring in the dawn of the atomic age is beyond my comprehension). In telling this story Tyldum and writer Graham Moore take a number of liberties with the known facts but it does make for occasionally gripping viewing: the eureka moment when a breakthrough is made is keenly felt, for example, while scenes depicting the awkward Turing’s clashes with establishment figures in the British government and the armed forces are certainly well acted, with Charles Dance popping up regularly as a formidable grimacing opponent. However ultimately the film fails to break free of its formulaic structure and design, the inability to make more of extremely one-dimensional supporting characters is frustrating and so much of it is wearyingly familiar: the predictable overpopulation with attractive actors, the omnipresent received pronunciation, the prevalence of tweed and the sullen brown colour palette (though I freely admit the presence of Scousers, denim jeans and pink overlays would be an eye-opener).
There aren’t many roles of note but the widely-praised Cumberbatch is excellent, though the actor certainly benefits from the decision to accentuate many of Turing’s character traits, and the invention of some new ones. Most obviously the codebreaker’s social difficulties are exaggerated in this film to the point that he seems to have Asperger’s syndrome, and is portrayed as an intellectual snob who is alienated because of his distinct lack of humour; however in reality Turing was sociable, had friends and enjoyed good working relationships with colleagues. He also led such a fascinating life that the focus here on three distinct periods – initial awareness of sexuality as a schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther), the Bletchley years and the period just prior to his arrest and prosecution – means that this feels somewhat incomplete as a study of the man: for example there is only a brief pre-credits mention for his pioneering work on early computers, and the establishment of the Turing Test is only alluded to by the film’s name, though the decision to skirt over these achievements is unsurprising: they’re not exactly the kind of subjects that regularly attract audiences to multiplexes in their droves, after all.
Keira Knightley is on form as Joan Clarke, a similarly important figure in the Bletchley deciphering, though when she appears as the only woman at an interview / codebreaker test and is mistaken for a secretary it’s hard to stop the eyes rolling toward the heavens when she subsequently beats all of the assembled male boffins and posts a record time to boot. Unfortunately the film’s mockery of the sexual politics of the era ends there, and Clarke is primarily defined by the way in which she relates to Turing, becoming his ‘right-hand woman’ and the only person he seems to be at ease with. It’s disappointing, though again hardly surprising, that the character’s role as an emotional crutch gradually becomes more important in this screenplay than her own work as a cryptoanalyst. Knightley’s part is, however, more substantial than most: Matthew Goode must act out numerous variations on the same scene as the caddish Hugh Alexander, while Mark Strong’s MI6 Chief Stewart Menzies fares little better, his special power being the ability to step out of the shadows at the crucial moment of every single high-level conversation. Dance’s Commander Denniston is nothing more than a perma-hindrance to Turing’s work – a portrayal that angered Denniston’s family in real life – while most of the other codebreakers are incidental or revealed to be imbeciles (presumably so that any modern day imbeciles watching can fully grasp the fact that the Alan Turing character is, by contrast, a genius).
When the action shifts briefly away from Bletchley Park we get little more than a sanitised version of wartime events. Tyldum occasionally drops in bloodless before-and-after montages that show the ominous sights of approaching U-boats or bombers as the Germans take advantage of supremacy above and below the sea, for example, and rather than witness the actual bombings of houses in London we instead see defiant people sitting on top of their piles of rubble; few of them actually look miserable and fewer still appear to be grieving. This reticent approach to showing the horror of war or the pain and suffering that took place means that little insight or hitherto unknown contextual information is gained, but at least the importance of cracking the Code is adequately established by several lines of dialogue, with Menzies asserting to Turing early on that four people have died while their conversation has been going round in circles.
Sadly despite its two very good Oscar-nominated performances The Imitation Game suffers from a blanket acceptance of popular dramatic convention, reducing years of work to a series of clichéd fiery clashes and needlessly linking Turing to the Soviet spy Cairncross (Allen Leech) for added intrigue. Turing’s life and work is interesting enough without such exaggeration, and you could argue that the inclusion of such a subplot betrays a lack of faith in either cinemagoers or the subject matter itself, even if it’s a common biopic trick. It’s also a shame that the screenplay really does little more than pay lip service to the work of others while a number of lines, such as Clarke’s ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine’, seem to be written with trailer and poster tagline in mind — and even the delivery by an actor of repute can’t disguise it. Worst of all is the tip-toeing around the subject of Turing’s sexuality; we don’t see anything of his relationships as an adult, which would be far more apt than the fabricated interactions taking place with a Russian mole or Bletchley’s top brass. Still, it’s not a poor film by any means, and makes for an interesting comparison with Michael Apted’s Enigma, an adaptation of Robert Harris’ fictional (and arguably heterocentric) novel of the same name.
Directed by: Morten Tyldum.
Written by: Graham Moore.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong.
Cinematography: Óscar Faura
Editing: William Goldenberg.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Running Time: 112 minutes.