The Imitation Game – film review

Main Cast

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander

Mark Strong as Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies

Charles Dance as Cdr. Alastair Denniston

Allen Leech as John Cairncross

Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton

Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock

Alex Lawther as Young Turing

Jack Bannon as Christopher Morcom

Director:

Like the recent Mr Turner this is a flawed  film which is worth seeing only because of the performance of the central character, in  this case Benedict Cumberbatch  in the role of the English mathematician, pioneering computer theorist and code breaker  Alan Turing. Moreover, it is worth seeing not because it represented Turing’s  personality and life faithfully,  but because the character on the screen was an eminently watchable antisocial monster, who generated both humour and pathos because he was unaware of his psychological deformity.

The main action takes place during  Turing’s time at the World War 2 Bletchley Park code breaking unit, with this topped and tailed by flashbacks to his schooldays at Sherborne where he forms an infatuation for a boy called Christopher Morcom who dies in  his teens  and flash-forwards to  his arrest and prosecution for indecency.  The schooldays and police  scenes add little to the film, indeed could be said to get in the way of Cumberbatch’s  portrayal  of a man breaking all the social rules not on purpose but simply because he does not understand how the game is played.

There is a good deal of humour in the film, most of it resulting from Turing’s supposed  extreme  antisocial personality traits.  This begins early on. When he meets  the head of Bletchley Park Commander  Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) . Turing is his usual socially dysfunctional  self. After a few minutes Denniston  looks at Turing’s CV and says sardonically, “Ah, you’re a mathematician. Now why doesn’t that surprise me.”  Turing replies without a shred of awareness  at his literal mindedness  “Because you just read it on that paper?”  he ventures pointing at the CV in Dance’s hand.  The look on Dance’s face is  priceless.

One of the  most telling and saddest  scenes in the film is where Turing tells a joke. He tells it awkwardly which is doubly poignant, because of his extraordinarily clumsy  reaching out for normal human interaction  and because  the nature of the joke is such that it is easy to see why it would have been accessible to a mind like his who would generally have great difficulty in understanding jokes because of his l his lack of psychological awareness.  The joke is this. Two men are out in the wild and a bear spots them.  One of the two starts putting on his shoes while the other says in amazement  what on earth on are  you doing that for, you will never  outrun  the bear?   I don’t have to, replies the other, I only have to outrun you.  The joke suits the onscreen Turing because it presents  him with a binary choice: two men, one bear equals only one person caught and eaten and requires absolutely no psychological insight.

But entertaining as these aspects of the film are there is the problem of veracity. The primary difficulty is the character of Turing. A certain emphasising  of character traits is legitimate as a dramatic device,  but there is always the danger that the emphasis will become so exaggerated that the essence of a person is lost.   I suspect that is what happened here. The film  represents  him as  having a startling directness which could be hideously rude,  literal mindedness, childlike egotism and manic single-mindedness.    Whether Turing’s antisocial tendencies were so pronounced is dubious . He was certainly not the easiest person to get along with,  for example, his  habit of wanting to be hands on with machinery – he was never happier than when he had a soldering iron or  a pair of wirecutters in his hands  – regularly drove engineers mad as he fiddled  with what they made or set up. He was also undeniably single-minded when he was working on an intellectual task.  Nor did  he have a deeply rooted social life which suggests introspection. There was also his excruciatingly annoying high pitched laugh, a  behavioural trick the film surprisingly fails to utilise.  However, none of that adds up to someone  with whom it was  utterly impossible to work.  The Turing of the film would have been desperately difficult to tolerate at the personal level and very disruptive of work such the codebreaking because it requires intense concentration and the exclusion of  distractions.  The Turing of the film is a past master at creating emotional chaos.

The misrepresentation of reality does not stop there. The film is essentially a biopic and as so often with such films  the director and screenplay writer take very large liberties with the truth. A few important examples.  There is no evidence that  Turing ever had much if anything to do with  Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service Mark Strong) , but there’s was a relationship of some importance to the film.  Turing is also shown working with  closely  the traitor John Cairncross, discovering Cairncross’ treason  and Cairncross  gaining Turing’s silence about his treason for some time by blackmailing Turing  over his sexuality.  There is also no evidence for this. The mathematician  Joan Clarke is shown as meeting Turing for the first time when she answers a newspaper  advert Turing has placed asking  for people who were good at crosswords to attend an assessment interview where they are asked to do the Times crossword in eight minutes. In the film  Clarke does it quickest in six minute. The reality is that Clarke was recruited to Bletchley by her old  Cambridge   academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman.  The casting the very attractive Keira Knightly as Clarke who  was  something of a plain Jane is also problematic , because it alters the relationship between Clarke and Turing in the viewer’s mind.  One of the codebreakers in the film Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard ) is shown distraught when a German message is decoded and shows a convoy on which Hilton’s brother is travelling to be the target of coming  U-Boat action. Turing argues that the message must not be used to warn the convoy for fear of alerting the Germans to the fact that the code had been broken. In reality, Hilton had no such brother.  There is also the general point that perhaps Turing was given too much prominence with  contributions by others at Bletchley underplayed or ignored completely, for example, the Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who designed  ‘Colossus’  – the world’s first programmable computer.

Does all of this matter? It depends whether the viewer treats the film as a biopic/historical drama, a fictional thriller or merely as a vehicle to display, whether accurate or not,  the character of Turing.  As  a biopic or historical drama  it is difficult to treat it seriously because of  the  liberties taken with facts.  As a thriller it never really takes off, not least because we know the ending and  little is made of Cairncross’ treason.  As a vehicle  for an arresting realisation of a complex, highly unusual  and fascinating character it succeeds.  It might even be described as a good if bizarre comedy of manners.

The actual work at Bletchley was by its nature  difficult for the film to make much of as drama  both because the work is esoteric and because a main thrust of the film was to show Turing’s intelligence. Portraying an educated  intelligence is one of the most difficult things in acting because  simply having a character spout a few  academic facts or theories   seems trivial to those  who understand the subject at which the intelligence is directed  and meaningless mumbo-jumbo to the  majority who come to the subject cold.  (Because of this the Eureka! moments in the film when breakthroughs were made clanked in a decidedly forced manner ). The quality of intelligence needs to be shown in the quickness and certainty of a character . Amongst  modern  British actors Ralph Fiennes and Cumberbatch are probably the best exponents because both have a donnish look and manner about them.  Here Cumberbatch’s natural reserve  also played to the isolated and distracted nature of the character.

The rest of the cast are , as one would expect from an ensemble  of British actors,  all good insofar as their roles allow.  But they are all, even Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, utterly dwarfed by Cumberbatch.  They  simply do not have much chance than to be rather one-dimensional, although Charles Dance splenetic Commander Denniston  is an amusing turn and Mark Strong is his usual satisfyingly  sinister self.

Importantly the film does not spend an inordinate amount of time focused on Turing’s  homosexuality.  It  would have been very easy to make a film which was a piece of politically correct propaganda, full of angst about the treatment Turing received after being charged with gross indecency with a total disregard  for the context of the time when this occurred. But to make such a film would have been  to greatly diminish Turing as a  person, because what was really  important about him was  not his sexuality but his great  intellect and the  use he made of it. However, the film did mistakenly try to show Turing as suffering from a loss of intellectual power when Clarke visited him after his conviction for indecency. (Again, there is no evidence for this event).  The film implied that the diminished intellect was due to the hormonal treatment Turing had agreed to rather than go to prison. In fact, Turing retained his mental powers right up to his death ,  publishing an important paper on biological mathematics  The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in 1952.

To read of Turing’s immense and broad ranging intellectual achievement, which covered mathematics, computing, code-breaking and  biological-related  mathematics  is to inevitably think of  the loss resulting from his death,  but the fact that he was prosecuted despite having like Othello  “done the state some service”  is reassuring because it shows no one was above the law.

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