At the heart of THE IMITATION GAME, Norwegian Morten Tyldum’s engrossing story of Alan Turing’s unlocking of the Nazi codes, is the towering performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. Cumberbatch is certainly the ‘it’ actor these days (In the last months, consider his protean output: the voice of Smaug in “the Hobbit”, “August: Osage County”, “The Fifth Estate”, “12 Years a Slave” and “Star Trek into Darkness”). Benedict offers us a pitch perfect Turing: socially awkward, emotion-free, introverted, arrogant and singularly focused on the job at hand. Oh, and gay.
The threads of ideas that knit the movie together – of how we’re judged and the secrecy we use to protect ourselves – are all woven into the life of this complex, obsessive mathematician. The movie looks at how society and culture conditions us to pass judgment on each other based upon accepted codes of behavior. Turing has the brilliance of mind to unlock the German codes of communication, but he remains largely locked out of society’s codes, almost like the machine –Christopher – he constructs. (In one awkward scene he tries to tell a joke to the embarrassment of all around)
The point is made time and again that Turing’s odd-ness, his autistic unconventional take on things make him a permanent outsider. People judge him as simply being ‘not their sort’. For this reason, at the very beginning of the film, he’s nearly by-passed for the job of joining the elite crew of code-breakers working on the Enigma machine. The Army Commander in charge of the unit (Charles Dance better know as Tywin Lannister of “the Game of Thrones”) finds him far too in-disciplined, his thinking too outside the box. Not the army sort.
A similar kind of culture-based judgment is made on a young girl, Joan Clark (a beautifully convincing Keira Knightley, trying – though failing – to look dowdy). Joan was clever enough to decode a job-seeking puzzle placed in the Times by Turing. But when she turns up for the job she’s immediately rejected because she’s a woman. Women aren’t supposed to be clever enough to do these ‘men’s jobs’.
As Turing notes “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, that do the things no one can imagine” (The line is actually repeated three times during the movie, just in case you didn’t get it the first time).
And Turing himself is no angel. He’s contemptuous of anyone less brilliant than him (pretty much everyone else). He judges them all to be fools and imbeciles.
The tragedy for Turing is that he is discovered to have violated the most fundamental of cultural taboos of the time. He is gay. He is judged a criminal. All his achievements during the war (it’s estimated that his pioneering code-breaking not only saved about 14 million lives but really introduced the world to the idea of the computer and artificial intelligence) are as naught in the face of such a social horror. In the end Turing killed himself (by eating a cyanide-laced apple).
His world – his homosexuality, his job at the war office – is a world of secrets and lies. So too with Joan, who can only continue her job at the war office by lying to her parents. She has to pretend to be simply part of the secretarial pool – in the company of women. Society’s code could not accept that she was working (as she was) solely in the company of men. When she learns of Turing’s (by then her faux fiancée) homosexuality, she still offers to marry him and keep his secret…so that he can keep and share hers: simply that she’s bright!
All part of the imitation game.
The most pernicious lie is that one of his key team members is a Russian spy.
But spying is something the culture can handle. Homosexuality, no.
Director Tydlum (and presumably writers Andrew Hodges – he wrote the book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma” – and his frequent co-writer Graham Moore) balance the present (1951) with the past (1941) nicely, by flashing back and forth. The movie begins in 1951 when the police arrive at Turing’s messed up flat (the always compelling Rory Kinnear – M’s chief of staff in the Bond movies -as the lead detective) to investigate a robbery. We see parallel discoveries: Turing’s momentous discovery of the key to unlocking the Nazi code and Kinnear’s discovery of Turing’s homosexuality. They’re presented almost in lock-step, as if the latter was as important for humanity as the former.
And so, structurally, without a word of authorial intervention or lecturing, “The Imitation Game” makes its point about social bias and the horror of its fears of homosexuals. It’s a lovely touch in a touchingly lovely movie