When you turn a true story into a movie, you need a cast capable of portraying remarkable, real people with all their flaws. The first thing you’ll notice about The Imitation Game, is how outrageously good the cast is and how well they work together.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Hawking, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) stars as computing pioneer Alan Turing, who, along with a small team, had the ultra-secret task to break the German Enigma code during Word War II. He portrays Turing as a socially awkward genius who had to lead a secret life not only because of his top-secret work – the reveal of which would have carried the death sentence for treason – but also because he was homosexual at a time when this was still a criminal offence.
As Benedict Cumberbatch has played many socially awkward geniuses lately (most notably as Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock), his portrayal does not bring anything new and recognisable to the character except for Alan Turing’s slightly higher-pitched voice speech pattern. This is not to say his performance isn’t top-notch, it’s just starting to feel and look oddly familiar.
Alan’s only true friend at Bletchley, mathematician and cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, is played by Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Anna Karenina, Pride & Prejudice). The friendship between them is palpable and they accept each other the way they are. She’s a woman in a men’s world and although she’s as smart as (if not smarter than) Turing’s team, she’s only in later stages allowed to work directly with them. He’s always been a lonely outsider focused on work and they bond over their shared love of puzzles and mathematics, forming a deep friendship.
Joan is highly intelligent, but, maybe due to perceived gender roles during the war, she comes across as naive and unable to make important decisions for herself. So when she’s faced with the choice of going home and looking after her parents or staying at Bletchley by marrying one of the men there, Alan proposes to her and she accepts despite her suspicions about his sexuality.
The movie is told in three storylines. The first is the “present day” setting of 1951, when Turing’s house gets burgled, but nothing is taken. Police become suspicious of Turing who seems to have something to hide, with suspicions rising further when his ultra-secret military file is missing. This investigation leads to Turing’s conviction and subsequent chemical castration and suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.
The main part of the plot takes place during the war years between 1939 when Alan Turing and his team, played by Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Allen Leech as John Cairncross, Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton and James Northcote as Jack Good, joined Bletchley Park in an effort to decode German cipher machines, and 1945 when their secret mission comes to an end. Tensions are running high in the team as Turing prefers to work alone and his machine, which he called Christopher, does not seem to be working. The actors truly shine whenever there is a conflict in the team. Of note is also how Cumberbatch as Turing subtly eyes every man he comes in contact with, and once even showing a sliver of hope attractions might be reciprocated before the situation takes a drastic turn.
Flashbacks to Turing’s time at a prestigious All Boys’ school in 1928 show him as highly intelligent but being brutally bullied by his classmates. His only friend, Christopher, introduced him to cryptography and solving puzzles and ciphers. Alex Lawther, who plays young Alan, has to be applauded for his performance as the bullied, wide-eyed pupil who slowly but surely falls not only in love with puzzles but also with the boy who introduced them to him, only to have his world crumble by Christopher’s unexpected death before Turing could confess his feelings.
Maybe it lost something in the German translation, but in Britain, machines are often given female names. For Turing to name his invention “Christopher” without the name being an acronym, could have been a big clue for his colleagues.
While the main plot of The Imitation Game is about the deciphering of the German Enigma codes and building aTuring Machine – a precursor to modern computers, the subplot is the more heart-wrenching one.
Turing is a war hero who helped decode German messages and helped make strategic decisions on which attacks to intervene. In hindsight, his work saved thousands of lives and shortened the war by several years. Yet he was never allowed to talk about the work he carried out during the war. The burglary at his home, and following investigation, showed that Turing has sexual contact with a man, something we take for granted today but in the 1950s, this still carried a criminal conviction and a prison sentence.
He was given a choice, between going to prison and chemical castration through a hormone therapy with oestrogen, to ensure he would not have these “indecent urges” again. Bafflingly, he chose the later, so he could stay at home and continue work on a new “Christopher” machine.
Alan breaking down in tears in front of Joan, who’d heard about his conviction, and confessing to her he chose to stay with Christopher (the machine) and that he just didn’t want to be alone is perhaps Cumberbatch’s best scene in the entire movie. It is definitely the most tear-jerking one.
This is a highly intelligent cryptanalyst and war hero who was treated like a criminal because of the gender he loved. Someone who was forced to keep both his professional and private life absolutely secret.
The modern IT world owes much to Turing and his inventions, on which modern computers are based. In today’s day and age of equal rights and legal homosexual marriages, it is easy to forget what LGBTQ people had to fear until so recently and it’s perhaps even more baffling how something private like who you loved could be of higher importance than the work you did and the lives you saved.
The Imitation Game is a very tasteful biopic of a truly remarkable man.