The Imitation Game is a glimpse into the life of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), during the time when he successfully broke the German Enigma code, and helped the allies win World War II. This movie stands on shoulders of Cumberbatch, as he gives a phenomenal performance as Turing, the brilliant mathematician who was later persecuted for his homosexuality. The film succeeds in showing us a man who is intelligent, but flawed, pitching the humor through his quirks and the emotional sentiment through his illegal sexual preference. He is, by all means, a sort of tragic hero. His story may have been “Hollywoodized” as stories about great men often are, but director Morten Tyldum’s biopic is worth seeing if only to realize that such a man as Alan Turing ever even existed.
The film covers three different time periods in Turing’s life. One is during his teenage years (teenage Turing played by Alex Lawther) at a boarding school where he is bullied and only has one good friend named Christopher (Jack Bannon), a boy who teaches him about cryptography. The second is the most prominent timeline, taking place when Turing meets with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and MI6 agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) at Bletchley Park and is hired to be a part of the cryptography team to crack the German codes. The third takes place after the war is over, when a police officer named Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) becomes suspicious of Turing and upon digging into his past, finds that his records of his time during the war are nonexistent.
A lot of the time in the movie is spent on Turing building his bombe machine, which would dramatically cut down on the time it would take to try and crack 159,000,000,000 possible code combinations in a single day–which is obviously impossible for any man to do, even with a large team. Not to mention, the Nazis changed the combination every midnight, so all the work done in one day would be useless by the day’s end. One of the few flaws of this film is that we aren’t given any insight into how his brilliant machine works. Although the technicalities of it might have gone over people’s heads anyway, it’s hard not to feel like we are kept in the dark just as the rest of Turing’s team is. Every time someone asks him what he’s doing he simply replies that they would never understand, and just as Turing doesn’t trust his colleagues to understand the mechanics of the code-breaking machine he’s trying to build, the filmmakers don’t trust the viewers to understand anything more than the simple idea that he is a genius who wants to build something. But the wheels keep turning in his head nonetheless, and the only thing you can do is trust him.
The only person who seems to understand him and what he’s trying to do is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a smart woman who is hired for the top secret job after she solves one of Turing’s complicated crossword puzzles in under six minutes. The rest of his team consists of Hugh (Matthew Goode), John (Allen Leech), and Peter (Matthew Beard), three men who don’t take too kindly to Turing’s arrogance and his failure to pick up on social cues. It is those very personality traits that are used for comedic value in the film. Alan Turing, aside from being a genius and a tragic soul, is the funniest thing about this movie, despite him not being able to pick up on or tell an actual joke. His quirky personality conveniently serves as great deadpan humor, much like Cumberbatch’s character as Sherlock Holmes in the popular BBC series. It’s a good way of keeping the tone light in between the flash backs and flash forwards into the more lonely and depressing times of Turing’s life.
Turing’s homosexuality plays a big part in how his life turned out, but it remains a rather subtle plot device throughout the film in comparison to the struggle to break the code. It comes out at first through Turing’s friendship with Christopher, when Turing writes a cryptographic message saying “I love you”–a message he never gets to deliver because Christopher dies from bovine tuberculosis, a disease Turing never even knew he had. But it’s clear that he had experienced what any other person would experience as a “first love.” When Turing builds the bombe machine later on, he appropriately names it “Christopher,” and refuses to part with it even after the war. In a way, it’s almost as if he was trying to resurrect Christopher through the machine, and that is what the machine represented for him all along.
Later on, after he proposes to Joan–an act that likely had to do with him enjoying her like-minded company and not wanting her to leave–he has to eventually tell her the truth about his homosexuality. It also, unfortunately, becomes a device for a certain Soviet spy to blackmail him with so that he’ll keep a secret. The time when it becomes the most important, though, is at the end. The end, although it felt a little rushed, is when Turing, despite everything he’s done for his country, is prosecuted and found guilty for “gross indecency” and has to choose between jail time, or a hormone drug that is supposed to cure him of his homosexuality. He chooses the drug and suffers the physical and psychological side effects of it, and those familiar white words that come across the screen at the end of almost every biopic tells us that Alan Turing later committed suicide in 1954. Of course, some say that he did not actually commit suicide, but that his death was accidental from cyanide inhalation having to do with something he was working on in his home laboratory. Either way, the film didn’t hold back in portraying his later years as some seriously depressing ones.
The end scene is the most emotional, as Cumberbatch delivers a heartbreaking performance here as a man who is very much alone aside from his machine, the one reminder of Christopher and a time when he was recognized as a hero by the few who knew what he had done for the war. He had helped his country and then his country had turned its back on him. It’s a tragic story even though the tone is rarely ever too heavy to handle. Cumberbatch does a great job of juggling the different parts of his character’s personality, and if there ever was a person to successfully encompass arrogance and vulnerability into one likable person, it’s him.
I’m sure Hollywood has taken certain liberties with the facts, as people are already quick to point out that Alan Turing actually had not worked alone in building the bombe machine, among other things, but still, as a story of an important man’s life, I think it has done him justice. Coming from someone who was mildly unaware of Turing’s involvement in the war, and the fact that he is the father of the modern computer, I’m glad that his story was told in such an easily enjoyable portrayal.