10 years in the making


The Imitation Game is based on the true story of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician, Enigma code-breaker and father of the modern computer, but also a social outsider, a man who found it easier to decode cyphers than human conversations. There could have been no contest, then, about the choice of actor for the lead role and Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t disappoint.
It’s an intriguing story. With all the participants sworn to secrecy, until the 1970s only a few people knew that the Nazi’s secret communication system had been broken at all, and many of the details are still shrouded in secrecy. This gives director Morten Tyldum licence to build in added drama, speculation and even some comic moments, although these sometimes jar with the serious issues thrown up by the story.
The film shifts between three time-frames – Turing’s time at boarding school, the work at Bletchley and his arrest for gross indecency in 1952. The suggestion seems to be that Turing had a form of autism and the film elicits comic moments from his misunderstandings and his insensitivity to other people. The laughs sit uncomfortably with the moving account of his life as a boarder at public school (played sensitively by Alex Lawther) which suggests the painful frustrations and loneliness that being different means. Forms of autism are often used in films and TV series as a shorthand for genius and Turing is portrayed with little more insight into his exceptional talents than being rude, good at crossword puzzles and obsessively fiddling around with an admittedly impressively complicated-looking machine.
Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. His work may have saved 20 million lives and cut short the war by 2 years. If he’d been arrested earlier, the Allies may not have won the war at all. His conviction and subsequent suffering was a shameful example of the treatment of homosexuals in that period, and you wanted the film to be a lot more angry about it. It’s not hard to understand why some critics have commented on its superficial handling of the issue of Turing’s homosexuality.
The story also exposes the discrimination that prevented women being taken seriously. ‘The lovely young ladies of the Royal Navy’, as the military commander of Bletchley described the brilliant women of Bletchley Park, played with no-nonsense imperiousness by Charles Dance, included Joan Clarke. Like Turing, she was a double first from Cambridge and his intellectual equal, but at the time it was assumed that someone else must have done the entrance test that got her a place in his inner circle.
Keira Knightley is actually very good as Joan Clarke but her casting reflects another problem with the film. It depicts and appears to challenge the sexist assumptions about women in the 1940s and 50s, but in other ways it reinforces it; in the world of film it seems that male mathematicians can be ordinary-looking, but female ones must be beautiful.
It’s a really well-acted and engrossing cinema, but you’re left wondering whether it might have been outstanding if it had taken a more courageous stand on the issues that make this story so interesting.