Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch (Alan Turing), Keira Knightley (Joan Clarke), Matthew Goode (Hugh Alexander), Mark Strong (Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies), Charles Dance (Cdr. Alastair Denniston), Allen Leech (John Cairncross), Matthew Beard (Peter Hilton), Rory Kinnear (Det. Nock), Alex Lawther (Young Turing), Jack Bannon (Christopher Morcom)
This British tale of Alan Turing, the English mathematician who masterminded a way to crack the WWII German encryption device known as Enigma, laying the groundwork for the modern fields of computer science and digital technology, is an intriguing story that’s been begging to be told and was, at least once before, in the far more fictionalized Enigma (2000). This version, based on the Andrew Hodges biography Alan Turing: The Enigma is slightly more faithful to the facts, but has still been criticized for its historical inaccuracies.
I find it hard to believe that people in their right mind still go to the movies expecting something other than history according to Hollywood, which is hardly a recent phenomenon. And for good reason, since the specter of a serious school lesson is enough to turn most people away at the ticket booth, unless they’re working on a term paper or something. Period pieces like this should be accorded full poetic license to dramatize the past with some measure of artistry and imagination. Failing that, the least one can hope for is that they entertain; those in search of the dry, hard facts have a history channel app for that.
I don’t mind that The Imitation Game cavalierly ignores Marian Rejewski’s preexisting Polish decryption device ‘bombe,’ which had already laid the groundwork for what Turing is being credited with here, or completely discounts the contributions of Gordan Welchman and Harold Keen in refining Turing’s designs. The movie is more interested in what’s going on inside the man than the machine anyway. Still, director Mortem Tyldum gets muddled in his own farfetched form of historical revisionism, trying to use Turing’s homosexuality, which led to him being charged with gross indecency after the war, as the key to unlocking the riddle. The movie is only partly convincing at that game, but it has a genuine empathy for its central character and despite its conservative craftsmanship, a peculiar approach for a subject as cutting edge as early computer science, a lilting brio that makes for a highly entertaining divertissement.
The director has set a difficult, nigh impossible task for himself to make the wartime work performed by the top secret decoding program headquartered at Bletchley Park in the English countryside, seem as white-knuckle, pulse pounding exciting as that of the soldiers under constant bombardment in the field. Trying to drum up excitement out of impassive intellectual pursuits, he does somersaults to turn this physically inert tale into one chock full of espionage and spies and intrigue, interpolating action scenes of aerial combat and torpedo bombings of food convoys to add impetus to what the decoders are doing. “We weren’t at war with the Germans,” Turing relates, “but with the clock,” and the time element is employed to place them in a heated race to hold back the hands ticking down like a detonator, processing twenty million years’ worth of possible settings in twenty-four hours before the inexorable changing of the Enigma code at midnight nullifies their day’s work. Come the striking of the hour, it all turns back into a pumpkin, leaving them with pie on their face. While WWII has been conceived by history as an epic battle between good vs. evil, democracy vs. tyranny, etc. “It wasn’t like that for us,” the lead character recalls. Indeed the decoders’ helpless ineffectuality is their sore spot, complaining that brave men are dying while they twiddle their thumbs producing nothing. Safely sitting it out on the side lines they feel they’re only imitating the arduous struggle and danger of real war work.
With all its visual conceits, The Imitation Game can’t quite get away from the central, irrefutable fact that these half dozen self-professed “crossword enthusiasts in a tiny village in the south of England” spent most of their days snugly pouring over diagrams and drafting boards. Although Moore’s story and Tyldum’s direction aspire to the grandiose surge of epic filmmaking, one can constantly feel the movie being hemmed in and tamped down by the contained setting of its main narrative. For the most part the limiting confines don’t allow cinematographer Óscar Faura to expand the frame to encompass more spacious and dynamic visuals, so the director works sideways, intercutting his code cracking story with past and future tenses to give his events a wider scope. Much like The Grand Budapest Hotel earlier in the year, which toyed with its nonlinear structure in similar fashion, The Imitation Game progressively unfolds backward in time, to the earlier, formative eras in its hero’s life, like a Russian nesting doll. Tyldum leaps back and forth with fluidity between his three main time frames here, beginning the movie in the present (i.e. the ’50s, when a break in at Turing’s residence prompted a police investigation into his private affairs), then rolls back to the war years when he laid the basis for his lasting fame as the grandfather of computer science, then back even further to his years as a bullied student at Sherborne boarding school, during which he first realized and began trying to deny his burgeoning sexual feelings for other boys. The script intercuts freely between these different eras to reinforce our perceptions, comment upon character and explicate motivation, all while giving its production (Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald) and costume (Sammy Sheldon Differ) designers a field day of different periods to play around in. The movie has been fashioned in handsome imitation of each representative era.
While he received much acclaim and several critical prizes for his action-heavy Headhunters a few years back, The Imitation Game is Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s first English-language film and he’s put together something of a perfect imitation himself here by simulating the prefabricated look and feel of the Hollywood classics. And it says something for his fast mastery of slickly manipulative commercial moviemaking the first time out the gate that the end result proves as highly entertaining as it does. He’s gone back to doing things the old-fashioned way but, while one can see all the exposed circuitry and wires that keep this film blipping smoothly along like a defragged memory drive, it’s a rare instance when knowing where we’re going doesn’t detract one iota from enjoying the fun of getting there. The Imitation Game reminds one of the complacent pleasures that only the professionally streamlined filmmaking of competent craftsmen can provide, the cinematic equivalent of easy listening. It may be nothing new but the movie does what it does exceptionally well.
Leaving us in no doubt that we’re in the competent hands of a master storyteller about to spin a whopper of a yarn, the opening lines, spoken in the tone of one of those self-detonating time bombs James Bond might have dismantled, prep us for the intrigues about to unfold as we’re cautioned to pay close attention or risk missing the clues that will unlock the mystery. Though one might be inclined to think reducing the world to scrabble terms would tend to simplify things, The Imitation Game has been structured like the crossword puzzles Turing used to help win the war, an elaborately fractured jigsaw for viewers to piece together, in time with the Bletchley Park team as they race to decrypt the German code, the detectives in the ’50s as they investigate the break-in and find themselves deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, and the preliminary events that turned young Turing on to cryptography in the first place, allowing him to code his true feelings for best friend Christopher Morcom in a way that safely shielded them from prying eyes.
The movie carries over the mindset of Andrew Hodges’ source biography, which posited the cryptographer, who keeps everything he feels so well hidden that he can’t be read and must be unraveled, as something of an inexplicable enigma himself. Graham Moore’s adaptation hands us a Turing who functions as an elaborate code to be cracked, allowing director Tyldum to use the interlocking time periods to decipher him in a way that audiences can understand. Alan Turing is as puzzled by himself as anyone, and when the detective (Rory Kinnear) who stands as our proxy says he can’t pass judgment at the conclusion of his incredible tale, Turing is disappointed that he offers no objective insight that might help him better understand himself. It’s not easy getting to the true Turing as the picture sees it, since he’s spent his entire life long hiding who he really is behind layers of synthetic and artificially constructed falsehoods. Turing is suspected of being many things, and only at the end do we get to assess our own opinion of him, if he’s machine, war hero, criminal.
But as withTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Turing here, appeared in, the false suspicion that he was a Soviet spy intent on defecting to the other side is a red herring used twice and that’s two times too many, even if the echoing is supposed to link past to present more strongly. With its time-hopping narrative, the movie doesn’t seem content just to focus on the intrigues of World War II but to anticipate the coming Cold War, with its subplot involving a double agent in the decoders’ midst, leaking secrets to Stalin. He’s been placed in the film to hype up the tension, but the boldly melodramatic device feels as though it belonged to an earlier era of filmmaking, and is raised and dropped so sporadically that by the time accused Turing uncovers the real culprit we’ve nearly forgotten about it. Lining his walls with charts and graphs like the Unabomber, he leaves an impression that perfectly matches the Home Office’s profile of their spy as an arrogant, isolated loner with no attachments to friends or family. Having virtually described Alan himself, when suspicion naturally falls on him it merely emphasizes his lifelong feeling of persecution for being different from others.
The secret Turing is keeping has nothing to do with his political leanings and everything to do with the fact that he’s bent, which was looked on with even more disfavor than fellow travelers back in the ’50s. Contemplating the prospect of embarking on a sham marriage to confidante and co-worker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), to ensure she remains on the Enigma project, he confesses that even though he cares deeply for her he doesn’t know if he can keep his intended bride ignorant of his orientation. But he’s advised by Bletchley Park colleague John Cairncross (Allen Leech) to do so on the pretext that homosexuality is illegal and their superiors are already looking for any excuse to drum him out as a malcontent. This attempt to entrap Turing in a life of further compromise, with innocent Clarke caught in the crossfire, is unpardonable advice, and to confirm the fact the man who gives it turns out to be the double agent, proving he’d only been imitating concern for Turing’s plight from the beginning. When push comes to shove and the chips are down, he has no qualms about turning the intel against him, blackmailing Turing to prevent his own identity from being exposed.
Bringing them to a standoff, he threatens “if you tell Dennison my secret I’ll tell them yours,” the line serving to link the two men, making it clear that this Soviet spy is in essence playing at the same game Turing is, putting on a false face by pretending to be someone he’s not. Neither poser is who he seems and bound by the secrets hanging over their heads, both abide by a gag order born of a shared fear of legal reprisal. The Imitation Game cleverly uses its espionage tale of undercover spies and double agents as metaphor for the necessity of closeted Turing keeping his real sexuality securely under wraps. “I know a lot of spies, Alan,” his supervisor states, “You’ve got more secrets than the best of them.” When Turing is, in turn, bid keep quiet a matter of national security that goes right up to the highest levels of government, he knows he’s in his natural element, responding that such requests are second nature to him now. Asked by a friend if he can confide a secret, he’ll respond in similar fashion with “I’m acquainted with those.” Is he ever.
The discovery that the great love of his life never revealed that he was terminal is intended to feed into Turing’s adult obsession with unraveling encrypted codes. He’ll forever rack his brain wondering if there was something he’d missed, some sign or gesture, an overlooked intimation that Chris was sick. Like him, Turing too keeps everything welled up within, and his expertise at hiding his own thoughts and feelings affords him an intuitive insight into the secret codes he’s expected to crack. Socially maladjusted, he’s drawn to cryptography because he doesn’t find it any different than talking really, since people never say what they mean, expecting one to just know, forcing listeners to read between the lines. To his mind people are enigmas who simply don’t compute, but Turing’s blunt forthrightness causes him to sound just as cryptic. When he tells one colleague that “That’s not an entirely terrible idea,” for instance, Joan must decode, “That’s Alan (talk) for thank you.”
Unlike A Beautiful Mind which was criticized for ignoring its main character’s questionable sexuality, The Imitation Game swings to the other extreme, taking the subject as its theme. As a gay man in a straight world to whose standards he’s expected to conform, Turing’s entire existence is an imitation game, a semblance of something rather than the actual thing itself, not unlike the artificial intelligence he dreams of constructing. While the Home Office is willing to ignore his sexual peccadilloes while he proves useful to them, he’s warned that wartime lenience won’t last forever and that he should ‘behave’ himself upon being discharged from service. When the film flashes back to his boarding school days, even before sex became a big issue, he already appears to be plagued by some obsessive compulsive disorder that singles him out from the other boys, allowing us to see that the same hardwiring that compels him to separate and categorize his vegetables by color also contributes to his ability to enumerate complex formulas and map theoretical algorithms all in his mind. We can also see the deep-seated psychological roots of his professed pacifism, which induces him to reflexively shrink back when co-worker Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) draws his fist, an aversion to violence that was the direct result of his classmates’ sadistic bullying. But while this conscientious objector who was walled up alive for sport may not believe in violence, he still considers it imperative to put his eminent mind to work for the war effort, moved by the plight of innocent civilians seen similarly buried underground on a nightly basis by the blitz. Turing has found a way to fight back in his own passive-aggressive way for all the persecuted people who can’t. The puzzles he has published in the newspaper to recruit the best cryptographic minds in England, inadvertently serve as a diversionary tactic, helping the public forget their troubles for the duration, the same way they helped him endure his hellish schooldays.
Introducing Turing to the science of cryptography, through which he finds himself, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) isn’t presented as a real person here so much as a guardian angel, the answer to Alan’s prayers. He’ll go on all his life repeating the humanistic pearls of wisdom handed down to him like holy writ. Still, it seems prosaic to have had his great redeemer named CHRISTopher, so that Turing could be wracked with guilt of biblical proportions for having denied knowing him. This deep and abiding spiritual love is meant to purify Turing’s homosexuality in cinematic terms by showing audiences it’s motivated by more than carnal drives. Chris’ tragic early death, which so scarred Alan, also allows the film to sidestep the necessity of depicting such adolescent experimentation as going any further than a few yearning glances, their flirtation ending before it advances into anything more significant on screen. Based on his fussily virginal, maiden aunt mannerisms, one would be hard pressed to believe Turing’s sexual dalliances ever got much further than this, despite the charges of gross indecency.
Benedict Cumberbatch won much praise for playing an updated Sherlock Holmes on TV before the even more modernized Elementary came along to steal his thunder, and he transmits a similar pedantic air to his role here. When we first meet his Turing he’s even performing his own casework, sweeping up the spilled cyanide powder in his ransacked lab while cavalierly insulting the visiting English bobbies on site to conduct an investigation. Using a slight, hesitant stutter at times that recalls Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, who had similar trouble articulating his thoughts, his snippy, pompous prickly pear with no discernible social skills or sense of humor is incapable of playing nicely with others. He’s the type who’d intentionally provoke people into punching him with his sweepingly condescending demeanor, so it’s little wonder he was bullied as a child.
Oblivious to the fact that he’s rubbing everyone the wrong way, pissing them off with his divine rights of genius routine and overly erudite elocution intended to go right over their heads, he assumes the same superior airs as his Sherlock Holmes did when humoring his version of Watson. Cumberbatch also played Stephen Hawking for the BBC and the actor remaps familiar territory by following up with another math wunderkind. He’s intellect without emotion, like the artificial intelligence he builds, and is described in similar automaton terms as ‘a little cog’ in a big war machine. When his first act upon being placed in charge of the Bletchley Park project is to fire the least impressive of his fellow cryptographers he’s told that “This is inhuman even for you.” Even Jane who had previously tried to defend Turing’s reputation will eventually concede that he is a monster and the computer he builds for himself, protects, names after his long lost love is this Frankenstein’s creation.
The schematics of the movie cast Turing in this light, giving him the fervid passion of the visionary mad scientist as he assures all the lesser intellectual lights surrounding him that they will never understand the importance of what he’s creating. Seeking to resurrect his long lost love in artificial form, he feverishly proclaims that his machine will work to all those who would call him crazed, that it’s alive, alive and, sponging up the data fed into it, still absorbing, computing and learning like a newborn baby. Having invented this unwieldy apparatus that clacks around the clock, a computerized perpetual motion machine, others fear and try to destroy it, like wrench-wielding co-worker Hugh and the authorities who break into his shed bearing the equivalent of pitchforks and torches. “Can machines think?” Turing asks rhetorically, “Most people say no.” But then given the dim view sci-fi has traditionally taken of emotionally prescient spare parts, this based-on-fact film departs from form by championing the creation of another HAL-9000, a machine that thinks and reasons the same way humans do, a machine that can feel and respond and love, which might seem slightly odd if there hadn’t already been Her last year and Frank and I before that.
Having successfully constructed this re-programmable universal computer designed to solve all problems, make calculations and determine what to do next, Turing is like a child with a new toy. What amounts in effect to the world’s first digital computing machine is so enormous that it takes up an entire wall and production designer Djurkovic enhanced the scale to make it appear even more visually dramatic. Turing wants to program it to be as human as possible, an electrical brain so lifelike he can christen it Christopher to keep him company in his lonely old age, using it much as computers would one day be used by everyone on eHarmony or just surfing porn. “I’ll be with Christopher if anyone needs me,” Turing states before retiring for the evening and proves unwilling to be parted from it for any extended period. It’s only the spy’s threat that the government will never let him see his precious machine again that stops Turing from turning him in, for instance. He agrees to the court ordered chemical castration rather than be locked away from his apparatus, and when Joan comes calling near the end, pleads with her not to let them take Christopher away because he doesn’t want to be left alone. Having been prematurely parted from the machine’s namesake in his youth, he spends a lifetime suffering a terribly pronounced form of separation anxiety.
While anyone with a ham radio set could intercept messages from it, the decoders of the Royal Navy can make nothing of the gibberish spit out of the German encryption device. At least until Turing’s enigma is solved for him by the simple observation that each and every message receiver on this side has their own German counterpart sending the codes from across the Channel and that one gets to know the rhythm of their typing, though the two may never meet. It’s his belief that ‘only a machine can defeat another machine’ that induces Turing to build his own. The computerized Christopher becomes the one mental equal this intellectual giant has met since his school days, which makes them ideal partners. The two exchange thoughts and ideas, talking to one another, matching wits in a play of minds, as in the national chess championships Hugh competed in.
The movie’s attempt to correlate cool, efficient, analytical Turing with the machines he builds, assuming that it takes one to know one, never pans out despite such leading lines as the one Cumberbatch delivers about computers having ‘different tastes, preferences, divergence from form like that in humans,’ leading us to believe he’s really referring to himself, and intended to get us pondering just how little divergence actually is tolerated by society. Where everyone else responds emotionally to stimuli, Alan responds like Spock, paraphrasing what Chris told him about the pleasure certain people derive from violence with “sometimes you can’t do what feels good, you have to do what’s logical.” While the movie is wondering if Turing is more machine than man, there’s a bigger question it fails to fully formulate, which is if the machine he’s built can think and reason and exert free will, what precisely differentiates this imitation of life from the way the actual human brain works, where does that thin divide lie between artificial intelligence and genuine animal cunning? Since computers like this can be programmed to mimic the human mind, only the imitation game that gives its name to the title proves capable of distinguishing between the semblance of life and the real deal, allowing the interrogator to determine whether he’s speaking to man or machine. But though this Turing Test is mentioned, the concept is never satisfactorily dramatized in the film itself. Instead, The Imitation Game has been shaped in a way simply intended to bring Turing down a peg, making him more relatably human to his colleagues and the audience. Like Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, who also initially hid their social awkwardness beneath a stand offish veneer, he’s humanized by the woman who comes into his life, which seems an awkward tack for a story about a homosexual to take. Being more sociable creatures, Joan encourages him to reach out to others, not to take himself so seriously, to tell a joke once in a while, and the movie pretty much loses its sense of humor around the same time Turing finds his, veering instead toward tear jerking sentimentality. Easing the way for him to comfortably interact with others, she proves how simple it is to get people to like him if he’ll only stop setting himself up as superior to them. He so wins over the same men who called him inhuman before for instance, they threaten to walk out en masse if his demands are not met, moving this man they considered as cold as metal to tears. Rallying to his defense the way they do, this might as well be a socialist collective, so it’s no wonder Turing stands suspected of being a communist sympathizer. Tellingly, the great eureka moment where he discovers the secret to cracking the German code, the film’s elating highlight, doesn’t come about while Turing is pouring over his notes and diagrams in seclusion, but during a perfectly insipid conversation with a telegrapher at the local pub.
So the movie has it both ways, mining laughs from odd duck Turing’s pompous ass witticisms at everyone’s expense then pulling heartstrings by showing his humble little attempts to fit in and be accepted by others, which makes us uncomfortable because it obliges him to diffuse his natural brightness, like a smart girl who turns into a dim bulb so as not to intimidate big, strong men. Turing is made to diminish himself to the level of lowest common denominator, which to judge by the less than stellar likes of Hugh isn’t something he should be obliged to do. The way the movie undermines Alan for his intelligence puts one in mind of those old movies that always made it compulsory for Katharine Hepburn to self-deprecatingly demean herself in order to cut her down to the audience’s size. This movie which purports to celebrate the accomplishments made possible by superior intellects, advanced minds that veer off in unexpected directions leading outside the box, ends up seeming to stress how much more emotionally fulfilling it can be to fit yourself into the rank and file as just another average joe.
Turing’s grand schoolboy romance is intercut with his first foray into heterosexual feelings for Joan Clarke, and while the crisscrossing makes for interesting comparison and contrast, the movie does itself a disservice by focusing more attention on the later than the former, as if it had been of lesser importance to Turing himself. As Clarke, Keira Knightley hasn’t displayed this level of luminosity in quite some time. Like an auburn haired Winona Ryder, she’s still possessed of that delightful pixie punk charm and those darling dimples, but this role provides her with a sturdier, more grounded part to play than the ethereal gamine one more easily envisions her as. Dressed in dowdy tweeds that bring out her natural bloom all the stronger, she’s retained the elfin ability to enliven her surroundings however drab and there’s no way this movie would work the way it does without her. Though her character has been accorded secondary status in this almost all-boys club, the screen absolutely lights up, the way Turing’s life does when she appears.
A woman passing herself off in a ‘man’s’ profession, Joan is playing an imitation game of sorts herself, keeping up a chirpy demeanor since, as she confides to Alan, being under constant scrutiny to prove herself doesn’t afford her the luxury of alienating co-workers the way he does. Instead she’s required to work twice as hard just to break even. Selected to take a final qualifying test based on her answers to the publicly circulated crossword puzzle, it’s initially assumed she’s applying for the secretarial pool for instance, then brought into question whether she actually solved the puzzle herself. While womanizer Hugh hypocritically professes the belief that men and women can successfully work together platonically, it’s Alan and Joan’s professional relationship which definitively proves his point. It’s specifically because his mind isn’t clouded by instinctual sexual feelings that Turing proves the only man present capable of taking Clarke seriously, addressing the room full of ‘gentlemen and lady,’ without condescension. Affording her the opportunity to work and make something of herself by putting her intelligence to use, he gives this woman who was denied the offer of a fellowship even after earning double firsts in math the chance she’s so richly earned to realize her full potential. As much of an outcast in their current situation as Turing is, he recognizes in Joan his own similar drive to prove himself equal to the task in a world automatically inclined to underrate and devalue people like them, sharing with her the same self-affirmation Chris taught him as a child about it sometimes being ‘the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.’ He’s simply paying it forward. Talking her conservative parents into letting Clarke move out unchaperoned, when they demand she return home where she belongs, he’s prepared to go even further, making the ultimate sacrifice by proposing a marriage of convenience, improvising a wedding band out of a length of twine and tying the string around her finger to remind her what she’s there for, keeping her head in the game. The way he uses the excuse that she’s indispensable to his work has the same ring as the pretext other emotionally inaccessible, hetero movie heroes use when too embarrassed to admit their true feelings. He makes noises like Henry Higgins.
Turing even plays out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, making a fool of himself by behaving like an overly ardent adolescent, throwing pebbles at Joan’s window when he steals away to visit her after lights out. This is Alan’s equivalent of lovemaking, bearing ciphers and graphs for them to pour over together instead of bouquets of flowers. They make such an ideal couple, and appear to be such good companions for each other, we don’t quite agree, even though we can understand, why Turing turns down her Carrington-like proposal for a platonic marriage of minds upon learning of his sexual bent, especially when it sounds so similar to the engagement he’d suggested earlier just to keep her around. She speaks sense when she claims many strong marriages have been built on grounds less substantial than the openness, candor, mutual respect and unconditional love they bear one another. At least both would be fully aware of what they were getting going in, meaning neither should have any shattered illusions. She knows he wouldn’t be a perfect husband but then she has no intention of being a perfect wife, planning to continue working rather than stay at home cooking and cleaning, reaching pretty far into more enlightened thinking herself.
Certainly an imitation marriage would give Turing far greater freedom than he currently experiences with his suspect sexuality under constant scrutiny. When the Home Office affirms that Turing is just the sort of man they hoped he’d be however, there’s a quick cut to Clarke to underscore the fact that he’ll never be the sort of man who could completely fulfill her as a husband. When he gallantly turns down her proposal, it’s because Turing doesn’t want her limiting her prospects by tying herself to him, any more than he’d wanted to see her professional ambitions frustrated by not being accorded the opportunity to make good. What doesn’t compute is that Clarke would so readily swallow Turing’s feigned callousness, his blatant attempt to run her off for her own good by making her believe he never really cared. Insulting her where she lives, he causes Clarke to reproach him with untempered ferocity, “This is the most important work I’ll ever do and no one is going to stop me, least of all you.” It’s astonishing that she should buy into the twaddle he spoon feeds her. Betrayed by the one man who’d encouraged her in her work and with whom she felt a kinship, she lashes out with words she doesn’t grasp the full meaning of, “Enigma will not save you! Can you decipher that you fragile narcissist? Or would you like me to fetch your precious Christopher?”
As this man who spent his life playing someone he wasn’t, Cumberbatch proves how good an actor he is by showing us what a bad actor Turing is; anyone could see through his imitation of insensitivity. But the movie’s Clarke, who makes her living decoding encrypted meanings, can’t read between the lines to discern what’s actually being said, completely buying into his false act. She knew him better than that; it’s a violation of her character. We don’t come to find if they patched up their differences or how they left things since all the relationships we’ve grown accustomed to just sort of evaporate at project’s end, as though they’d never existed. But it imparts added poignancy to their reconciliation scene years later when Clarke returns to Turing in his time of need, countering her earlier venom with just the words of encouragement he needs to hear, the same sentiments Christopher had espoused to him so long ago, Moore’s script bringing this choice bit of dialogue brilliantly back round to bear on proceedings. She assures him that cities, populations, entire fields of science exist specifically because of him, that it took a man whose circuits had been rerouted so that his mind didn’t drift in the customary directions, to crack a code that helped make the world safe for democracy. “The world is an infinitely better place because you weren’t normal,” she assures him, disparaging the imitation game he’s spent his entire life playing at.
Like Windtalkers which also concerned WWII cryptographers, The Imitation Game is an earnest effort in the international studies tradition of restoring marginalized groups traditionally stricken from the record to their rightful place in history, heralding the contributions they made to society. Expunged from memory due to his sexual orientation, The Imitation Game seeks to rectify Turing’s position as the grandfather of computer science. But given his professed pacifism he must have been left feeling as conflicted as Einstein over the atom bomb, when he guessed how his discoveries in the field of digital technology would be used for future wars, allowing governments to simply flip a doomsday switch to set in motion the annihilation of nations. The script wants to link Turing’s light years ahead of its time work with computers with his far seeing sexuality in order to present him as a challenge to established authority on several fronts simultaneously, helping explain the government’s eagerness to erase his war record and wash their hands of him after he’d served their purpose.
But in the Alan Turing devised for the film there’s no evidence to suggest he was ever anything other than completely circumspect, more than willing to keep his sexuality top secret even eons before don’t ask, don’t tell. Moore’s script is slanted to make the man a martyr, suggesting that Turing’s inability to cope with the hormonal therapy the courts prescribed in a plea bargain to avoid prison, is what led him to take his own life. But it’s just as likely that the public disgrace heaped upon this very private man when his sordid affairs with hustlers ended splashed across the nation’s press was an equal contributing factor in his suicide. Which doesn’t make the raw deal he was handed seem any less appalling. And while the thought of chemical castration, believed the only surefire way to cure homosexuality at that time, seems as backward and barbaric as lobotomies and aversion therapy does to us now, there’s something harebrained in the self-righteous way the film uses the concept for shock purposes. If surveyed, many of the same individuals who profess to be aghast at the thought would, even today, champion chemical castration as suitable ‘punishment’ fitting the crime in the context of rapists or child molesters.
I wish the entire group of code crackers were as vividly defined as the two leads, but the other characters in the cast largely fail to come into focus. Remembering him from A Single Man, Matthew Goode serves as red herring of a different sort. We half expect him to be the next great love of Alan’s life until we realize that this chess playing cad has been placed in an adversarial position to crossword solver Turing. Our suspicions that he’ll then replace Turing in Clarke’s affectations also go pleasantly frustrated. The movie is an exemplary example of dramatic license most of the way through, but when Moore’s script is forced back on the crutch of historical accuracy, the accumulative force seems to dissipate. The ultimate success of the Bletchley Park project feels like a Pyrrhic victory for instance, firstly because it validates the God complex we believed agnostic father of artificial life Alan had successfully overcome. “God didn’t win the war, we did,” he insists and the way things are presented here we couldn’t refute him. Allowing him to sift and choose which information should be leaked to the Allies in order for it to do the most good, effectively choosing who will live and who will die, he’s placed himself in the same position as the architects of the final solution.
Secondly, because the film has used extensive crosscutting in order to show us the soldier and civilian lives at stake, why it’s imperative the code breakers beat the clock, the ending which prevents them from using the precious information they’ve gleaned in a more immediate fashion, feels not just like a letdown but a betrayal to the emotionally invested viewer. They’ve heroically succeeded in their mission only to find their hands tied by red tape, and apparently not a soul bothered to consider these possible repercussions beforehand. Rather than following through on their sense of euphoria at having finally cracked the German code, they’re instead forced to keep their success top secret, taking the wind out of the film and leaving it flat. Their feverish hard work doesn’t feel to have truly been worth it since the script can find no way to resolve the decoders’ moral culpability in choosing to sacrifice so many soldiers for the greater good by sitting on their findings.
The long arm of coincidence is conveniently maneuvered so that the brother of Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), the youngest and most innocent of the coders, just so happens to be stationed on a convoy whose imminent torpedoing they are helpless to prevent. Though the scene is simply the dramatization of their moral quandary it succeeds in bringing this ethical crisis home to the audience in a more emotionally immediate way. Yet we never find out what happened to the brother. The Imitation Game can’t resolve the way it congratulates these upstanding code crackers for not letting their loose lips sink ships with the way it then turns around and denounces the oppressive times that forced Alan to keep quiet his big secret until it was exposed despite himself. The movie can’t decide whether silence is a virtue or not, so its logic collapses in a way the analytical Turing character would have detested. Having gotten that off my chest, I must admit I didn’t have a better time at a movie all year I wasn’t ashamed to be patronizing. Until its final half hour or so, The Imitation Game tabulates inoffensively smooth entertainment from minute to minute, and in an imperfect film going world, figures like that shouldn’t be so easily discounted.