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The Imitation Game

Imitation Game

Once you get the eyebrows right, the rest of the acting just
falls into place

dir: Morten Tyldum


What kind of name is Morten Tyldum anyway? Sounds completely made up, to me. It sounds like someone started with the name ‘Tyler Durden’ and randomly started changing the consonants around. What is it, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, random name generated by some program in Mongolia?

Whoever the delightful Morten Tyldum is, he she or it has directed a truly delightfully depressing flick about true genius Alan Turing and his great achievements during World War II. Chief of these achievements would be the creation of a machine that could crack the German’s Enigma code, used for all of its naval wartime communications, and considered unbreakable at the time by both sides.

I have known of Turing since I was a teenager solely due to the use of his name in science fiction novels whenever the issue of Artificial Intelligence came up, but I didn’t know that much about him at the time. Later on, when his status as one of the progenitors of modern computing received greater prominence, I came to understand not only that he was a great man, but a martyr to the cause of gay rights as well.

The Imitation Game can’t be all things to all people. To those who consider Turing’s persecution to be the most important aspect of his life, they’re probably going to wish that the film concentrated more on how he was persecuted and the impact it had on him personally. To those who think it should have focussed on his technological achievements, they’re going to be disappointed that it didn’t focus more on the machinery and tech exposition which would otherwise have bored most of the rest of us to death, or at least into comas. To those who think the most important aspect of Turing’s life was his homosexuality, well, they’re going to be disappointed that there isn’t more made of Turing’s sexploits. Nothing short of scene after scene after sweaty scene of Benedict Cumberbatch with parts of himself inside another chap, or vice versa, would ever satisfy.

So, from my perspective, from a generalist perspective, the film strives to achieve a balance between these different aspects of Turing’s life and crafts a satisfying and sad biopic about a genius ill-used by the nation, the kingdom that he saved.

This being a film made contemporarily, this being a film that stars pale oddball Benedict Cumberbatch, ‘genius’, or at least the depiction thereof needs must include a portrayal of someone who’s somewhere on the goddamn spectrum.

No, I don’t mean the colour spectrum, because Cumberbatch is so pale as to be translucent, and thus he’s not on that one at all. I mean Turing as played here has pretty much got Asperger’s, or more correctly would these days be defined as being somewhere on the Autism spectrum.

Yes, I know that Benedict Cumberbatch has been nominated for an Oscar for this performance (there’s no way he’s going to win: I don’t know if Eddie Redmayne will win for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but there’s no way ‘gay genius’ beats ‘disabled genius’ in the rock-paper-scissors of Academy reckoning), and it is a good performance. Thing is, though, it’s not like it’s hard for Cumberbatch to play anti-social geniuses. He’s been doing so as Sherlock in the BBC series for ages, and pretty much has a lock on the type. If anything he’s being typecast.

What does he bring to this portrayal? He renders Turing as a believable, flawed man with an intellect far and beyond many if not most of the people around him, perplexed by human foibles but entirely aware of his own. For him the ‘problem’ or necessity of breaking the various German codes has nothing to do with patriotism or saving lives or saving the Empire from the Nazis. To him the appeal is that it’s the most complex problem available, and he’s arrogant enough to be motivated by a desire to be the smartest man on the Continent.

At least that’s how it seems to start off. Well, I’m ignoring the framing device of a police investigation in the 1950s, after the war, but then I’m sure Turing himself would wish it could be ignored too.

The story we are watching is being told to an incredulous police detective (Rory Kinnear) who is convinced, since at the time there is nothing indicating what Turing’s service in the war actually involved, that Turing must be a Soviet spy, somehow mixed up with Kim Philby and the other traitors known as the Cambridge Five.

He moves, like we might, from outright suspicion to open mouthed awe.

The story line jumps from era to era, even to as far back as Turing’s tormented school days in the 1920s, which are crucial in explaining certain aspects of his character. But the main part, the main interesting part is seeing how the formation of the Bletchley Park sewing circle came about.

Charles Dance has made a career of playing stern, disappointed authority / father figures, most notably and recently as the dreaded Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, and here he plays an even more sardonic, more barely tolerant version of the same. As Commander Denniston, the head of some place with a very cumbersome name, he seems to be more of an antagonist to Turing and his goals than even the Germans. Time and again he relishes an opportunity to get rid of Turing, whom he regards with at least disdain but more like outright loathing, and the only thing that seems to pull him back from getting his way is the fear that the higher ups might find out what a prat he’s been. I adore every chance to see Charles Dance, and this was no exception.

Turing is not a people person. In fact, with possibly one exception, it’s not clear to me based on this story that he ever even made eye contact with a single other human being. Are they real to him? Based solely on this depiction, I’d say no. He even gives a long monologue about how alien other people’s minds are to his own (that’s not what he’s saying, that’s how I interpreted it), and how a computer’s ability to ‘think’ might be different solely in the sense that the thinking (preferences, tastes) of one person can be so different from another.

What he wants to achieve requires lots of interaction with other people, including Britain’s brightest cryptographic minds, and he is completely unsuited to doing so. They’re a drag on his time and attention, and he considers none of them up to his standard, and, really, he’s only going to break Enigma if they let him do what he wants and they all leave him to get it over with.

In short, they depict him like a spoiled bratty boy who just wants to be left alone with his toys. Is this what it was really like to work with him? I dare say based on the biographies of the other people he worked with, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander, he might not have been as abrasive and clueless, but he was certainly eccentric.

Not much softening of those edges goes on here. The objective seems far more important than the various human niceties, though quite comically (to us), Joan coaches him on the necessity of showing some basic human feeling towards his fellow cryptographers in order to achieve his aims.

This leads to the most awkward and outright funny scene in the whole film, where he tries to tell a joke and sounds about as emotive and understanding of humour as the voice in your elevator telling you what floor you’ve reached.

And he gives them all apples. So that they’ll like him.

That may be a grudgingly funny scene, but later on, once they start achieving some success, we reach the most powerful, the most telling scene in the film, when the implications of what they’ve achieved are succinctly placed into a dreadful scenario. A personal element is added (I have no doubt the entire scenario is heavily fictionalised, but it’s a powerful summary of their likely position all the same) which gives their new ‘power’ a dreadful aspect, one that will haunt them for years after the war.

For you see it wasn’t enough to break the unbreakable code. They also had to not let on to the Germans, the Russians, to their own people that Enigma had been cracked.

So if you find out about an imminent attack on a group of British nuns on a ship in the Mediterranean clutching orphans who are in turn carrying baskets of puppies and kittens, to divert them could tip off the enemy. Consider the horror of having to allow attacks you know you could prevent, basically deciding what quantity of deaths of your own people you will have to tolerate, and you might grasp what happened when they achieved their dreams.

Like gods, they became, but even such gods as Alan Turing could not stop the authorities from ruining him for being gay. Of course this flick is riddled with historical inaccuracies, but I hardly think it matters. They make it look like 1 genius, three other guys and a girl cracked Enigma and won the war two years early when Bletchley Park had 10,000 people working on the case. It doesn’t matter though, because you can’t tell all their stories.

You can tell one amazing guy’s story at least, and I think they do remarkably well.

8 times you’d think having a name like Benedict Cumberbatch should immediately disqualify you from any profession except for barrister or clown out of 10

“Oh, Alan... we're gonna have such a wonderful war together.” – that’s the spirit, stiff upper lip tootle pip and all that – The Imitation Game