Whenever anyone talks about World War Two in this country there is an innate sense of pride, a result of our victory against Hitler’s devastatingly barbaric attempt at world conquest. But what isn’t so widely acknowledged, is just how we won. What The Imitation Game does as a film, is explain one of the most important functions running at the time, that essentially in itself ended the war, whilst also giving us a remarkable insight into a brilliant man whose extraordinary efforts were shrouded for many years in disgrace and ignorance.
This man, of course, was the eccentric but genius mathematician, Alan Turing. Aided by a small group of fiercely intelligent individuals – who ranged from cryptologists to chess champions – Turing succeeded in cracking the ‘impossible’ Enigma code, which the Nazis used to send hidden messages. Sadly, despite this colossal contribution to our victory which saved countless lives, the fate of Alan Turing is something that surely no-one in this day and age can feel proud of. Certainly to the majority of contemporary audiences, the British Government in an act of unfathomable and completely unjustified prejudice, treated this war hero as a criminal: simply because he was gay. Turing had to choose between prison and chemical castration, opting for the latter. Despairingly, he later took his own life at the age of 41.
Thankfully though, despite the anguish that will undoubtedly and understandably be felt for Alan’s personal plight, this film is first and foremost a celebration of his work and his wartime achievements; achievements which for more than 50 years were hidden from the world. The film is based on Andrew Hodges’ biography, ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma‘, and spans almost all the aspects of Turing’s life, from his unhappy adolescence at boarding school, to his initiation into the project to crack Enigma, and all the pitfalls that came from Turing’s machine until it’s inevitable success.
What is not so clearly emphasised are the homosexual acts for which Turing was so heavily and brutally punished. Even in the school flashbacks, where Turing forms a short-lived friendship with a boy called Christopher (who died of Bovine tuberculosis, and whom Turing’s code-breaking machine would be named after), there is not much to be seen. However, it is insinuated that beneath his peculiar exterior, Turing was in love with him. This is both a shame and a blessing all at once. While it would have been more interesting to gain a deeper insight into Alan’s personal affairs and would have made the film seem far more risque, I do feel a sense of respect for director Morten Tyldum’s decision not to do so. Since it’s Turing’s work that was never properly appreciated or celebrated as it should have been at the time, it is arguably a much better tribute to concentrate on telling the story of his incredible contribution not only to the war, but also to mathematics and computing.
Turing is played, with aplomb by Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays Alan in a very emotionally interesting way. One of the themes of interrogation run by Rory Kinnear’s police detective in the film is the question of what makes a machine different to a man; Cumberbatch’s characterisation of Turing suggest the figure was both man and machine. There are certain aspects of Cumberbatch’s previous performances (most notably his Sherlock Holmes) in Turing, displayed as a sense of intellectual superiority and arrogance, limited patience and the disposition of an outsider, not generally liked by others. Turing is motivated by the importance of logic over feeling – particularly when it comes to horrible decisions that need to be made for the greater good. However, there is also the most incredible humanity and emotion to his character, particularly with regard to his work and his personal struggles, both in the past and the present. It is difficult to come out the other side of this film without feeling some sort of empathy towards Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing, which is what makes his performance so intriguing, and certainly award-worthy.
The supporting cast is made up of an incredible array of British talent, from Keira Knightley (who plays the only female member of the code-breaking team, Joan Clarke) to Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Charles Dance. The relationship between Turing and Clarke is also interesting, as it brings out the warmth in Turing’s character. A rather kindred connection between the two is explored given that Clarke, as a woman, was met with just as much scepticism and derision as Turing was, even before his homosexuality became prevalent. The overall aesthetic of the film is good, although the images of war seem to be more picturesque that you might expect – as it is less gritty than other war films in it’s perception of the devastation.
Although you may go in and watch this film for Benedict Cumberbatch, the cast or for love of the period genre, this film is so grounded in it’s desire for you to see this genius for the war hero that he was, that by the end of the film all viewers are left with the most intense feeling of respect for Alan Turing. As I write this review, it occurs to me that had it not been for his efforts, my ancestry might have been cut short long before I had chance to become this girl sat at a computer – which in itself exists in at least some part thanks to Alan Turing and his work.
That’s the best part of the film: that it can so deservedly change or introduce our perception of this man, who for so long, has been forgotten.
The Imitation Game is in cinemas nationwide, now.
This article was written for The Indiependent. It can be found in it’s original form here