If you are not a mathematician or computer scientist, it is quite possible that you have never heard of Alan Turing. That is unfortunate, since Turing is generally regarded as the father of computer science and of artificial intelligence, and thus more than anyone else in history is responsible for today’s cyberworld. Princeton University, from which Turing obtained his Ph.D., named Turing their second most important graduate ever—the first being President James Madison.
Turing’s other claim to fame is as a cryptanalyst, or breaker of codes. Working for the British MI-6 Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing and his team were responsible for building an electromechanical machine—the world’s first true computer—which was able to crack the “unbreakable” German Enigma machine code. The decoding of German messages enabled the Allied powers to defeat the Nazis in such conflicts as the Battle of the Atlantic. Turing’s work is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years, and to have saved millions of lives.
It is this dramatic war story that is the focal point of Norwegian director Morten Tildum’s new film, The Imitation Game. In his first full-length screenplay, writer Graham Moore has based his story on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: the Enigma. Moore’s script opens in 1952, when police are called to Turing’s home to investigate a burglary. One of the investigating police officers, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear), becomes convinced that Turing has something to hide, and, curious that he can find so little information about Turing, begins to investigate his life. Finding Turing’s war record has been expunged, the investigation turns up, instead, evidence of turning’s homosexual activity, and he is arrested under Britain’s 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act and charged with “gross indecency.”
It is Turing’s statement to Detective Nock that forms the narrative of the war years, which are the chief focus of the film. Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing captures the genius mathematician’s arrogance as well as his social awkwardness: He nearly blows the job interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of Game of Thrones) because he makes it clear his motive is not patriotism but rather his interest in solving a difficult puzzle—and because he does not understand jokes. He doesn’t want to work with the assembled team because they won’t be able to keep up with him, and he doesn’t want to waste time explaining things to them. At the same time, his fellow cryptanalysts resent him for not being a “team player,” though they ultimately stand by him when Denniston wants to fire him and they recognize that his machine is their only chance to break the Nazis’ code.
Despite his very unattractive qualities, Turing is able to keep the audience’s sympathy for two reasons: first, he goes out of his way to bring a brilliant mathematician, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) onto the team, despite the official stance of the government toward women in such positions, despite the social mores of the time, and despite her parents’ objections—he even proposes to Joan so that she can reassure her parents about her situation. Turing’s advocacy of Clarke, valuing her potential intellectual contribution above any social constraints, demonstrates his essential humanity beneath his machine-like personality. Of course, his championship of Clarke foreshadows his own ultimately more devastating defiance of social mores.
The other means by which the film keeps our sympathies with Turing is through a series of flashbacks to Turing’s days at public school where, bullied and misunderstood by fellow students and tutors, the young Turing (Alex Lawther) is befriended by classmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who encourages Turing through his difficult times, telling him “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” advice that he uses later in the film to encourage Joan Clarke. But Turing’s memory of Christopher, the memory that reveals that he does indeed have a heart beneath his machine-like veneer, is embodied in his naming his life’s work, the computer itself, Christopher.
Like most biopics, the movie really does rise or fall with the performance of its lead actor. In this case, Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as the mathematical genius whose emotions were stunted in adolescence. Of course, Cumberbatch has made a career of playing arrogant but socially inept geniuses, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek’s Khan to the Hobbit’s dragon Smaug. Here, his Turing is brilliant and aloof, arrogant but stammering and clumsy in his relations to others, perhaps located somewhere on the autism spectrum. His machine-like restraint through most of the film makes his tragic breakdown in the film’s last scene all the more powerful.
Through most of the film, Cumberbatch is ably supported by Knightley, whose Joan Clarke is another mathematical prodigy but one much more able to conform to society’s expectations of her, and thus in one sense serves as a foil to Turing. She helps Turing gain the good will of his colleagues while at the same time solving puzzles more quickly than Turing can solve them himself. She is completely convincing when Turing comes out to her, thinking to break off their engagement, and without missing a beat she indicates she was already aware of his sexuality, and proposes a marriage of minds. Her heartfelt sympathy when she meets him again after his arrest is honest and moving as well. The only problem with Knightley’s performance is that she is not onscreen enough. It would have been nice if her part had been more substantial.
Two difficult questions are raised by the film’s last half hour or so. The first involves the decision of how to use the information the group gains from decoding the Nazi messages: They have the opportunity to stop a German attack on a British convoy before it happens, but in doing so would reveal to the Germans that the code has been broken, thereby giving up the advantage gained by their secret knowledge, and forcing the Nazis to create a new code that might take years to decipher. The decision to use the decoded messages selectively, and to allow certain allied lives to be lost in individual battles for the sake of ultimate victory, is a controversial and complex one, and perhaps deserved more development than the film gives it.
The other questionable aspect of the film’s final minutes is the depiction of Turing’s own end. As the film accurately portrays (spoiler alert!), Turing, convicted of gross indecency, was given a choice between a prison sentence and hormone therapy—what was essentially a kind of “chemical castration.” He is on the hormones when Clarke visits him, and seems a physical and emotional wreck. Closing credits roll over a scene of a triumphant decryption team burning their records on VE-Day, but indicate that Turing comitted suicide at the age of 41, two years after the last scene with Knightley. What the film does not say is that Turing died of cyanide poisoning after eating an apple laced with the poison. Turing’s mother, however, always insisted that the death was accidental—a theory believed by many others. The film sidesteps this controversy, and avoids the grimness of Turing’s death, perhaps because Turing is a more sympathetic martyr to the cause of gay rights if he was driven to take his own life by the injustice of the system, rather than dying accidentally because of his own careless handling of a lethal substance.
Such quibbles do not deter from the overall brilliant execution of this movie. This is only Tildum’s second film—his first, Headhunters (2011), was also critically acclaimed but not widely seen. The Imitation Game should insure him of significant future opportunities. I’m going to give this one four Shakespeares—Cumberbatch and Knightley particularly make this one of the best movies of 2014.