The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, tells the story of Alan Turing, an eccentric yet exceptional mathematician/cryptanalyst recruited by the British government to help crack the Nazi Enigma code. When I first saw the film at the cinema, I gaged a few different reactions from fellow audience members as we were walking out. One teenage girl said something along the lines of “that was really boring”, a frustrating but unsurprising response considering the ignorance of youth. However, I felt more encouraged when one middle aged woman said, “I think I’ll Google him”. Upon hearing this, I immediately thought to myself: this film has done its job.
So who was Alan Turing? What did he do that is worthy of remembrance? He’s certainly not a household name (or at least he wasn’t before this film came out) but his life story is something that has deep resonance in today’s world. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Alan invented what came to be known as the “Turing Machine”. This was a contraption that not only managed to crack the code of the infamous Enigma Machine employed by the Nazis, allowing the Allies to intercept German transmissions and subsequently win the Second World War, but also served as the starting point for the development of what we would now call a computer. The significance of his work should therefore not be understated for fairly self-explanatory reasons.
At this point you’re probably thinking, this man will surely have been hailed as a hero! Well… he wasn’t. In fact, he was prosecuted and chemically castrated. Why? Because he was gay, why else? As awful as it may seem now (in western culture at least), back then performing homosexual acts was a crime, plain and simple. Tragically, Alan Turing wound up as yet another genius unacknowledged in his time. Now that isn’t to say that to this day the man still hasn’t been acknowledged: quite the opposite.
There have been a number of tributes to Alan Turing since his death, including a 1986 play staring Derek Jacobi, and in the 21st Century he has received a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II as well as a public apology from the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. So the purpose of The Imitation Game is not to seek justice and redemption, but rather to widen Turing’s cultural recognition. Cumberbatch himself has expressed his befuddlement as to why Alan’s story is not a more prominent part of British cultural heritage and hoped that the film would rectify this.
So we all know what this film was trying to achieve, but did it actually do a good job? In my opinion: yes. I’ve read reviews arguing that the film doesn’t work with its full cinematic potential, referring to its lack of scope when depicting the war, and is more evocative of a TV drama. For me however, the film is much more of a character study than a war film and has more than enough intrigue and emotional depth to justify a feature length theatrical release. I also feel that the consensus by some that Cumberbatch’s performance is merely a Sherlock knockoff is ill founded as while there are strong hints of Sherlock’s intelligent wit and social awkwardness in there, Cumberbatch’s Turing displays a greater level of humanity and vulnerability. It’s just a role that really suits the actor’s talents. Despite the film’s minor factual inaccuracies, sacrificed I’m sure in the name of artistic license, all the pieces come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable biopic.
If you haven’t seen the film yet I highly recommend it, and if your tastes are anything like mine you won’t be disappointed. When the DVD arrives on the shelves, I know I’ll be picking up a copy and giving it a re-watch. Also, if you don’t know much about Alan Turing, please do Google him.
Posted by Frank Short