Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bletchley Park, Christopher, Code breaking, Drama, Enigma, History, Homosexuality, Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Morten Tyldum, Review, True story, World War II
D: Morten Tyldum / 114m
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, Tuppence Middleton
Manchester, 1951. A robbery at the home of maths professor Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) leads to the police, particularly Detective Robert Nock (Kinnear), having suspicions that he is hiding something.
1939. Turing arrives for a job interview at Bletchley Park. He is aloof, humourless, arrogant, and quickly stirs the ire of his interviewer, Naval Commander Denniston (Dance). On the verge of being thrown out because of his behaviour, Turing mentions Enigma, the “unbreakable” encryption device being used by the Germans; if it can be cracked, it will turn the tide of the war in Britain’s favour. Impressed, but still against his better judgment, Denniston hires Turing. He becomes part of a team that is headed by chess prodigy Hugh Alexander (Goode), and includes cryptographers John Cairncross (Leech) and Peter Hilton (Beard), though there is friction from the start as Turing prefers to work alone; instead of trying to decipher the hundreds of messages they intercept each day in the hope of breaking the code, Turing works at constructing a machine that will be able to analyse and decode the 159 million million million possible settings the Enigma machine uses.
Denied the funds to build his machine by Alexander, Turing approaches Denniston but is rebuffed. He gets a letter to Winston Churchill via MI6 overseer Stewart Menzies (Strong) and ends up in charge of the programme at Bletchley Park. He fires part of the team but then realises they need more staff. He has a difficult crossword puzzle published in the newspapers; anyone who solves it is asked to attend a further test/interview at Bletchley. Through this he meets Joan Clarke (Knightley), who proves to be a match for him intellectually, and despite some resistance from her parents, he arranges for her to work on the project.
1951. Nock gains a copy of Turing’s military file, only to find there’s nothing in it. He tells his superior, Superintendent Smith (Waddington) that he believes Turing could be a Communist spy. Smith allows Nock to investigate further.
1940. Turing arrives at the hut the team uses to find Denniston and some MPs going through his desk. Apparently there is a spy at Bletchley, but the search reveals nothing out of the ordinary, though Denniston makes it clear his suspicions lie firmly with Turing. Tensions between the group are heightened as Turing spends more and more time building his machine and isolating himself. Joan tells him he needs to be more friendly otherwise he won’t get the help he needs. He does so, and a little while later receives a suggestion from Alexander that is beneficial. A confrontation between Turing and Denniston leads to the rest of the team backing him and his machine (against the threat of being fired); Denniston tells them they have a month to prove it works.
With the month nearly up and no progress made with the machine (named Christopher after Turing’s schoolboy friend), Turing finds himself talking to Helen (Middleton), one of Joan’s friends, and someone who intercepts the German messages. She reveals that her German counterpart always uses the same phrase in their messages. It proves to be the breakthrough Turing and the team have needed. Now, instead of searching through all the possible settings, Christopher only has to search for ones that contain words that they know will be in the messages. They test their theory… and it works. But that isn’t the end of it, and a terrible decision has to be made. And in 1951, Nock discovers that what Turing is trying to hide isn’t that he’s a Communist spy, but that he’s a homosexual.
There are two things that can be said about Alan Turing: that without him the Germans could well have won the war, and the circumstances of his post-war life led to a terrible tragedy. It’s to The Imitation Game‘s credit that it explores these aspects of his life with both candour and a lack of sentimentality. Exploring for the most part his work at Bletchley Park, the movie doesn’t ignore his formative years, nor the events that led to his untimely death in 1954, but its the way in which each part of his life is integrated that makes the movie so effective. The different periods dovetail with precision, Graham Moore’s intelligent, well-constructed screenplay – albeit one that contains a great deal of invention (the character of Nock and his investigation for example) – picking out the highs and lows of Turing’s life with exemplary attention to detail.
The importance of Turing’s work during the war can’t be stressed enough; historians have gauged that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war by at least two years. The size of the problem, the sheer enormity of it all, is given due importance, and the various setbacks add to the tension, but it’s the movie’s focus on Turing and his team that adds immeasurably to the drama. Turing is portrayed as an arrogant boor, dismissive of anyone less intelligent than himself (and that’s most people), and so single-minded in his pursuit of a solution to the Enigma code that his arrogance increases tenfold. His interaction with Alexander is initially antagonistic, but the growing respect they gain for each other is handled with care and sincerity, and brings Turing out of his shell. As well there’s his relationship with Joan, as unlikely a collaboration as could be imagined during the war, but as richly rewarding for each other as it is for the viewer (and beautifully played by Cumberbatch and Knightley).
Turing is brought to life by an amazing performance from Cumberbatch, immersing himself completely in the role and proving mesmerising to watch. Moore’s script allows for a lot of humour in the movie’s early scenes, mostly at the expense of Turing’s humourlessness (and Denniston’s apprehension at his behaviour). Both actors relish their sharp, witty dialogue, and while it all helps to make Turing more sympathetic than he would be otherwise, it also serves to introduce the Enigma project in such a way that the seriousness of the situation, when it becomes more pronounced, doesn’t leave the audience missing the humour. And the drama reaches a peak in a scene where the terrible consequences of cracking the code means a heart-rending decision has to be made that affects Hilton’s brother. It’s a chilling moment, with victory swiftly replaced by despair, and perfectly highlights some of the difficult decisions that have to be made during wartime.
In terms of biographical continuity, the movie flits between 1926, the war and 1951. Turing’s time at Sherborne School, where his friendship with Christopher Morcom leads to the first intimation of his homosexuality, is given weight by the later use of “Christopher” as the name of the code-breaking machine. It also paints a rather amiable picture of boarding school life and shows the younger Turing struggling to come to terms with his own emotions and the love he feels for his friend. These scenes are the equivalent of the kind of rosy childhood memories we all think we experienced but which in actuality were probably worse than we remember, but they serve as a way of showing how disappointment and regret have allowed the older Turing to become so haughty and withdrawn. The post-war sequences, almost entirely invented for the movie, give a passing hint at how Turing may have died but then states at the end that he committed suicide, which was the official cause of death at the time, but which has since been revealed to be not entirely conclusive.
It’s these distortions and fabrications of the historical period that, inevitably, do the most harm to the movie, and while a degree of dramatic licence is to be expected in a drama “based” on true events, the range and number of historical inaccuracies is worrying. In truth, Turing was not as disliked as the movie shows, and he did have a recognised sense of humour. He didn’t lead the team at Bletchley Park, nor did he write a letter to Churchill asking for funds to build his machine (which in reality had already been designed in 1938 by Marian Rejewski, a Polish cryptographer). Clarke’s involvement was not as pronounced as shown in the movie, and Hilton had no brother, while the character of Helen is entirely fictional too. It’s understandable that these aspects of Moore’s script are there to enhance the drama, but when you have a true story of wartime heroics to tell, the need for such embellishments – or falsehoods if you will – seems unnecessary. And Turing’s homosexuality, while not overplayed, is treated somewhat like an unfortunate character trait, with everyone at Bletchley aware of it but ever so respectful at the same time – one wonders if that would really have been the case.
Despite issues with the script, the cast are uniformly excellent. As mentioned above, Cumberbatch is mesmerising, portraying Turing’s strength of will and sense of purpose with such skill and confidence that the character’s quirks and odd physicality seem entirely natural. He dominates every scene he’s in, causing his co-stars to up their game considerably; as a result The Imitation Game contains a raft of performances that are so good it may well be the best acted movie of 2014. Knightley is appealing as Joan (even if she bears no resemblance to the real Joan Clarke), and plays her with a determination and inner strength that matches Turing’s irascibility and overcomes it. Goode, Leech and Beard, as Turing’s main collaborators, all get their chance to shine but it’s their group scenes and their interaction with each other that work best. Kinnear has an awkward role that he copes well with, as a detective representing our modern approach to the adversity that Turing suffered after the war; it’s the one role that doesn’t entirely convince and seems shoehorned into the movie to make the point about how badly Turing – a war hero – was treated after hostilities ceased. And Dance and Strong, as the twin faces of the Establishment, provide effortless support throughout (as you’d expect).
Fresh from his adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (2011), Tyldum displays an appreciation for recent British history, and handles the complexities of the story in such a way that nothing seems too intellectual to understand. He keeps the action very contained, focusing instead on the characters and their personalities, showing how people from often very different backgrounds could, and did, make such a vital difference in how the war was eventually won. The various periods of Turing’s are recreated with admirable authenticity (some wartime scenes were actually shot at Bletchley Park), and are lensed to very good effect by Oscar Faura. There’s also a subtly evocative score by Alexandre Desplat that enriches each scene it plays over or supports.
Rating: 9/10 – despite taking a huge number of historical liberties, The Imitation Game is gripping, thought-provoking, ambitious movie making, and one of the finest dramas of recent years; with stellar performances from all concerned – including Cumberbatch’s career-defining turn – this (mostly) true story scales new heights in the genre of historical drama, and can’t be recommended highly enough.