Alan Turing was one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. He basically invented what we now call the computer (though his version was vastly improved by the microchip). But he had two things working against his receiving the fame he was due. His work was classified, and he was a homosexual.
He is the subject of Morten Tyldum’s terrific film, The Imitation Game, which is both a war-time thriller and a condemnation of small minds, both those who scoffed at his attempts to break Enigma, the Nazi code that everyone thought was unbreakable, and those who would imprison someone for who they loved. In retrospect, this all seems so ridiculous, which is a good reason why we need to be reminded of it every now and again.
I have no idea how much of the film is true, but as the film presents it, Turing (played magnificently by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a brilliant mathematician recruited by the British government to crack the code. His arrogance nearly costs him the job, as the commanding officer (Charles Dance) doesn’t think much of him. He’s teamed with, among others, a chess champion (Matthew Goode) who. like most people, finds him completely unlikable and sneers at his attempts to build an expensive and large machine that will crack the code.
Turing goes over Dance’s head to Churchill himself and is given leadership of the team. He recruits more team members by placing a crossword puzzle in the paper, and ends up with a woman (Keira Knightley), and again small minds have provenance, as she has to pretend to work in the clerical pool because it wouldn’t be “decorous” for her to work alongside men.
Despite all this pigheadedness, Turing broke the code, but it could not be revealed, because as soon as the Germans realized it, they would rework it. Along with an MI6 man (Mark Strong, properly mysterious), this leads to one of the most difficult decisions in the history of warfare–to let some attacks take place, and thus let people die. I had read about this before, but watching it play out is painful.
The story is told in flashback as Turing tells his story to a policeman who, thinking he was a spy, investigated him and found out he was gay. Turing had a choice–to go to prison or to be chemically castrated. He chose castration, so he could continue working.
The film is very well done on all levels. It’s suspenseful, even though, as in all World War II movies, we know who wins, but it’s the how that holds us, not the what. Cumberbatch is a perfect choice for the role–his abnormally large head looks like it would be full of genius–and he plays all aspects of the part just right, including the moments when he actually tries to be nice. Flashbacks to his youth are telling, and the young man who plays him as a boy (Alex Lawther) deserves commendation.
The film is by no means perfect. It avoids being too strident in the area of the persecution of gays, which ends up watering down the import of England’s intolerance. And, as I said, I don’t know the history, but it seems to be that Dance’s character wouldn’t act that way, and instead just serves as a cartoon villain. What does hold up is the delicate relationship between Cumberbatch and Knightley, who get engaged to cover up things for both of them. He eventually tells her his secret, and she hardly blinks, which is a nice moment.
I also liked the look of the film, including the photography, costumes, and sets. I don’t think The Imitation Game will crack my top ten, but it’s a fine picture nonetheless. My grade: A-.