The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tydblum
Story by Andrew Hodges
Screenplay by Graham Moore
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke.
Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock (in 1951)
Charles Dance as Naval Commander Dennison
Mark Strong as Mr Menzies (of MI6)
Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander (fellow codebreaker)
Allen Leech as John Cairncross (fellow codebreaker)
Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton (fellow codebreaker)
Alex Lawther as Young Turing
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
The Enigma machine story is important in Britain, it has the birth of computers (Ultra), and it was an enormous project cracking the German machine-generated Enigma codes in World War II. Winston Churchill said in 1945 It was because of Ultra we won the war. 12,000 people worked on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park, 8000 of them women (which is already causing controversy over this film, where Keira Knightley represents virtually all of them). The Enigma story is why people walked out of the dreadful film U-571 in Britain. The British ship HMS Bulldog captured an Enigma machine from the German U-110 in May, 1941, six months before America even entered the war. It was a crucial find. In the U-571 film, the Americans did the heroic job in 1942, and the film was described by the then Prime Minister as “An affront to British sailors” as indeed it was. One of the few true things he ever said. Think of the American reaction to a British film where the Enola Gay became a Lancaster bomber piloted by plucky Brits.
The 2001 British film Enigma was set at Bletchley Park, but was a story set within the context rather than the story of how Enigma was cracked. The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing, who masterminded the project. Turing was gay, and after being arrested in 1951, was subjected to chemical castration before committing suicide in 1954. Camilla Long in The Sunday Times complained that there as “only about 4 minutes of muted gay content in the whole two hours.” Or rather 113 minutes. This is unfair, the whole point is that Turing dared not come out of the closet, because homosexuality was illegal in 1941. Coming out wasn’t what bothered him. He knew that Commander Dennison, the officer in charge of the project, was looking for any excuse to get rid of him. Any admission would be Dennison’s excuse to end Turing’s participation in the project. As the film starts with Turing’s arrest for gross indecency in 1951 and constantly flashes back to it, I thought the story well-balanced and well-told. It’s a 12A. It tells the story of an important part of British history, and should be widely seen by kids. What does Ms Long expect? Explicit homosexual intercourse?
Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke
Elsewhere, people who knew Turing thought it an accurate portrait of him but complained that the real Joan Clarke was “rather plain” compared to Keira Knightley. People, this is a major film. What do you expect? Joan Clarke was not only a code breaker, but engaged to Alan Turing. So Keira is lovely, but at least she is British, so has charmingly irregular teeth, rather than the gleaming American wall of even teeth. Cumberbatch gets totally inside the character of an autistic genius. He doesn’t understand jokes, nor socializing, nor does he appreciate how others feel.
The script is first-rate, both in the way the story grips … and the story is about spinning metal dials on a machine, so not easy to make gripping … and in the way the characters engage and how dramatic the necessary discoveries are. Cuts to archive film are constant reminders of the real war. There are also sets of blitzed London. The 1941 atmosphere it creates is finely detailed. The film switches seamlessly and constantly between 1928 (schooldays), 1941 (Bletchley) and 1951 – 52 (Manchester).
The team: Peter Hilton (Matthew Bearde), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allan Leech) plus Turing
The film does not skip the moral dilemma of cracking the Enigma code either, though it personalizes it to the sailor brother of Peter Hilton, one of the codebreakers. The dilemma was that if they acted to save a convoy, they would reveal to the Germans that they’d cracked the code. The Germans would immediately stop using it. So they had to let the Germans carry on with (say) a particular submarine attack knowing that innocent people would die. This gets condensed to cracking the code, then instantly being confronted with the specific dilemma which makes good narrative. I’d assume that issue had been thought out and discussed before the discovery. All sorts of events are ascribed to keeping the successful code cracking a secret, one which keeps coming up is the bombing of Coventry in November 1940, but that was six months before a machine was captured.
Charles Dance as Commander Denniston
The Eureka! moment seems a little suspect too. It would surely have occurred to quite a dim and lowly code cracker to look for repeated phrases. You also wonder that the Germans would have been so dumb as to put Heil Hitler at the end of each message. Perhaps the contempt for linguists expressed by the mathematicians was the problem … that’s how the keys to ancient languages were approached. It was Turing who realized that the project of cracking the code had nothing to do with an ability to speak German. It was a matter of generating the correct letters. They had any number of people who could ten translate the result.
One point they never address in the film, though it is suggested subtly and strongly at the end by the MI6 man, Menzies (pronounced “Mingus” an affectation shared by Menzies Campbell, or “Ming”). That is that after numbers of Enigma machines were captured from the Germans in 1945, they were passed on to our allies as useful tools, without Britain happening to mention that they had cracked the code. Allegedly this provided useful intelligence for many years. It’s good to know what your friends are doing and thinking.
The film is genuinely moving. It is horrifying to view how Alan Turing was treated … he was finally “pardoned” in late 2013 for his indiscretion. He was offered the choice of two years in prison or submission to hormone therapy which would supposedly “cure him.” His work on computers was so important to him that he could not face two years in prison. It drove him to suicide. This was the man, who according to Churchill, made the greatest single contribution to the war effort. Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about how profoundly he was affected by portraying Turing’s end. The film credits point out that 49,000 British men were prosecuted for gross indecency before 1967, and it’s fair to ask whether the other 48,999 are going to get posthumous pardons too. Going back to those Sunday Times comments, I really felt Turing was treated with respect and that the gay issue was not skipped over at all.
This really is a season for British heroes … Turner, and now Turing finally getting his deserved recognition, and coming just two weeks after Turing, we will have the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, featuring Eddie Redmayne. We saw the trailer for that, which looked brilliant, and in any just world, Timothy Spall, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne all look like Oscar nominees.
One I would nominate immediately for Best Supporting Actor is Alex Lawther, playing the Young Turing at Sherborne School in 1928. He has some fine Cumberbatch mannerisms, and puts in a stunningly good performance. That’s in a very strong field here. Mark Strong is a sinister Menzies from MI6, Charles Dance plays the Officer-in-Charge of Bletchley Park, Commander Dennison with just the right combination of sharpness, stuffiness and wrong decision calling. Keira Knightley actually wears blue stockings and convinces as a double-first maths genius. Though she doesn’t come across as “rather plain” unsurprisingly.
Manchester, 1950s, after Turing has been “chemically castrated”/
I did wonder about the chat between takes on the set. Did Benedict Cumberbatch and Rory Kinnear swop notes on playing Hamlet? Kinnear did the National Theatre in 2010. We have tickets for Cumberbatch’s Hamlet for 2015. Then did Allan Leech (Tom, the Irish ex-chauffeur in Downton Abbey) mention Cumberbatch’s oft-quoted opinion that Downton Abbey was “fucking atrocious”? Was everyone quizzing Charles Dance on how to get a part in Game of Thrones? Did Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch discuss the TV series Sherlock versus the film Sherlock Holmes in which Mark Strong played Lord Blackwood?
A five star film. On my personal rating, it’s a “Buy Blu-Ray immediately on release without waiting for discounted prices.”