I could begin this review by talking about the real Alan Turing, who was a brilliant mathematician and cryptologist, who worked very hard for the British government throughout the 1940s, in total secrecy, and reinvented the Bombe machine, which was vital to stopping World War II. He was also gay, persecuted by the very political engine that recruited him for his intellectual expertise. He rose above his oppositions, remained loyal to his genius, cut the war short by two years and eventually overdosed on cyanide at the age of 41. He was quite a remarkable man.
No, I’d rather centralise my attention on the Alan Turing The Imitation Game invents, who is similar to the real man in many ways (appearances notwithstanding) but strafes off in oblique directions, often landing in unnecessary potholes. I get the feeling writer Graham Moore approached the story of Turing like a juggling act eager to placate a restless crowd. He’s got the characters in his hands, but once they’re in the air he loses them. His story becomes muffled, confused by its own ambition.
I begin with the end, with a passage of text that flashes over woeful images of our heroes as they party through the night around a bonfire of all their hard work. It reads a little something like this: Between the years 18-something and 19-something, over 49,000 homosexual men were tried and convicted under British law for acts of indecency. No doubt Alan Turing was among them. He was given a choice between prison and oestrogen pills. He chose the pills. And then he died. We get flashbacks throughout the film detailing his relationship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) in prep school, which does little except remind us that he’s gay and that the Bombe machine he assembles is named after Christopher.
I go back to the passage of text. It leaves me with one question: Is The Imitation Game about Alan Turing the gay, Alan Turing the mathematical genius, or Alan Turing the war hero? It seems confused about this, and in its confusion ends up being about none. It’s all a kaleidoscope of grave talk and secrecy, sometimes about the machine, sometimes about homosexuality, sometimes about espionage.
What it does it does very well. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers the kind of nuanced performance as Turing that projects and recoils all the internalised terrors of his childhood as if caught in a tug-of-war with himself. He is a man of many secrets, some he chooses to keep, others he is forced to. He is very intelligent, as much of the dialogue freely suggests; he takes on qualities that reminded me of Jesse Eisenberg’s fractured portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. Does this Turing have Aspergers Syndrome? Or is he merely a prick? Two questions anyone could also ask of Zuckerberg and live full lives without getting answers to.
There are neat moments in The Imitation Game where all the characters seem to flourish in complete harmony. Many take place at the local pub where Turing and his colleagues ruminate and ease the pressure of saving the world by fixing their gazes on more reachable, feminine goals (do his colleagues know he’s gay?).
Surely Joan Clarke doesn’t. Joan (Keira Knightley) is added to the team because she completes a really difficult puzzle in 5 minutes and 34 seconds. Turing admits he takes 8. By this logic the Enigma team should be run by Joan, but women in 1940s Britain hold no equal power, so she has no choice but to settle for supporting player. How emasculating it would be for Turing if Joan had, somehow, weaselled her way to the very top.
The Enigma team is tasked by MI6 (“There are only five divisions of British Intelligence! There is no MI6!”) to break the German Engima machine, an encrypting device used by Nazi Intelligence to code all their major messages, which include, rather amusingly, the daily weather report.
That the machine is eventually broken by the device Turing creates is no surprise. How it is broken is where all the fun is, though The Imitation Game spends less time with Turing’s device and more time elsewhere. Not as fun.
I walked out of the theatre discussing with my brother what could, and perhaps should have been, which I know is a move very dangerous in criticism. But to point out what The Imitation Game does wrong, I feel I must point out what it doesn’t do.
The movie lacks focus, as I mentioned earlier. What it also lacks is a real sense of thrill and suspense. Yes, we know Enigma breaks, but what if the movie could lead the audience into thinking it doesn’t get broken? Bear with me here. If Moore and director Morten Tyldum had chosen one path and stuck to it, Turing’s genius for instance, then they could have moulded their story around Turing’s relationship to his device, which we can see is full of cogs and levers and buttons and switches and wires and groans ominously, but if you asked me how it works I’d look at you like a cow would look at an oncoming train. I just wouldn’t know. The movie never explains it.
To understand the device is to understand Turing’s genius. If we know how the device is made, we know how it works. If we know how it works, we know how it doesn’t work, and sometimes knowing how a machine doesn’t work creates inherent suspense. The revelation Turing has that leads to his success would then be clearly defined, bright and legible. Instead, we see him breaking the code and think to ourselves: What just happened?
Drop the gay angle. We know he’s gay from the flashbacks. That’s enough. Focus on his mind, his relationships, his obsession. Show us what a true prodigy he is. Not many people can devise a crossword puzzle that can be solved by only a handful of wordsmiths. Turing is quite the character. He invents quite the machine. He cuts the war short. Focus on all that. That passage I referenced, the one about the 49,000 homosexual men, what is it for? To appease the LGBT crowd? Pride (2014) did that last year and did it well. Don’t turn Turing into a crusader for rights. It’s not what he was born to do.
Best Moment | “There are only five divisions of British Intelligence! There is no MI6!”, “That’s the spirit”. Or, quite plainly, the moment Engima breaks.
Worst Moment | Every time the potentially inspired plot turns in on itself and resorts to cliche, as when Turing must confess a deep, dark secret to Joan who, at that point, is engaged to be married to him.