Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Rory Kinnear
Used by the Nazis in the Second World War to obscure their communications, the Enigma Machine was the greatest encryption device in history. With 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 different combinations and a code that reset every evening, it appeared uncrackable. But a small group of British mathamaticians, linguists, chess champions and crossword enthusiasts did manage to achieve the impossible and their efforts are believed to have shortened the war by more than two years and saved up to 14 million lives. This amazing achievement was kept a military secret for 50 years, but now comes to the screen in The Imitation Game.
In 1939, MI6 brought together a small team of Britain’s best and brightest in Bletchley Park to try and decipher the Enigma Machine’s code. Among them was Professor Alan Turing. An infuriating character, Turing was brilliant but arrogant and horribly condescending. While the rest of the team immerse themselves in the futile work of trying to decipher the daily codes, Turing wants to invent a machine to crack Enigma. The resulting machine, which Turing called Christopher for reasons that become apparent in the film, was one of the earliest computers. But then comes the film’s great moral quandary: once you have cracked the code, how do you use the information without revealing to your enemy that you have done so, to ensure they continue to use it?
The Imitation Game feels like a classic, old-fashioned period drama, despite some modern characterisation, but it will surprise some viewers that this seemingly most British of films actually comes to us from a Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum. Tyldum delivers a very polished and conventionally well-made film. That is not to say that The Imitation Game is formulaic, simply that it follows all the rules of ‘quality’ filmmaking. And there is nothing wrong with that. They have become rules for a reason, because if you follow them closely and complement them with a good screenplay and a strong cast you end up with an excellent film, as The Imitation Game undoubtedly is.
The Imitation Game is not a scientific or procedural film. It does not seek to give us any significant insight into the strategies of code cracking. Instead, it wants us to focus on the urgency and futility of their mission. We see the alarm ring at midnight and watch the team frustratedly throw out that days unsuccessful labour and start again with the new days code. We feel the weight of their responsibility, knowing the longer it takes them to find success, the more allied troops die. It is only Turing who can dissociate the puzzle from the human tragedy of war. Cumberbatch’s performance suggests, rightly or wrongly, that Turing was somewhere on the autism spectrum so this emotional detachment is implied to be a result of his condition. His ability to dissociate the puzzle from the gravity of the responsibility then becomes simultaneously the key to his effectiveness and one of the primary sources of everyone’s frustration with him.
Alongside the story of this incredibly important military achievement is a personal story of human tragedy. Alan Turing was a homosexual at a time when it was considered criminal to be so. The film uses his arrest for “gross indecency” – from which he would receive a posthumous royal pardon in 2013 – as a framing device, with Turing narrating the story of the enigma code to a detective in a police interview room. The film doesn’t dive into his sexuality, as it doesn’t with the science, which has led to allegations of ‘straight-washing.’ Instead we watch the complex pseudo-romantic relationship that develops between Turing and Joan, who both feel a strong love and admiration for each other, though not a sexual attraction. Joan is the only person whom Turing treats as an equal, and thus she becomes the bridge between the difficult Turing and the rest of the world. The film does leave you wondering how different the world might be if Turing’s homosexuality had been discovered and he had been arrested before he was able to complete his machine and crack the code.
Graham Moore’s brilliant screenplay, from Andrew Hodges book, contains more humour than you might expect, but it doesn’t undermine the drama of the narrative. Well directed and impeccably performed – Cumberbatch and Knightley are at the top of their game here –The Imitation Game is an intriguing and engrossing look at a different type of war story.
Review by Duncan McLean
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