The Imitation Game moview review: Based on a biography by Andrew Hodges
Star Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode
Director: Morten Tyldum
IN AN interesting exchange quite late in the film, Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing tells a detective questioning him in lock-up to hear his story and then judge what he is, depending on a test or ‘Imitation Game’ he has himself devised: Is he a machine, or a person? The detective sits back, and says he doesn’t know.
That’s the beauty of Cumberbatch’s performance as the misunderstood Alan Turing, who helped win a war but died of suicide after being convicted and chemically castrated for indecency because he was a homosexual. In another of his layered roles of wary, wounded men, Cumberbatch is a maths genius who can break codes but struggles to decipher normal human conversations, and genuinely can’t understand why. The only connect Turing has is with his work, and the more he pushes away whatever and whoever comes in the way, the more lonely he is.
While the role has been compared with Benedict’s performances as other geniuses such as Sherlock Homes and Julian Assange, neither had the vulnerability Turing wears on his sleeve. He would remain unrecognised, unsung and unsure for most of his life.
The film tells Turing’s life in three chapters, which run parallel to each other. The first is of him as a bullied boy in a boarding school where his only companion is an older student, Christopher. The second and the most substantial part deals with his work cracking the Enigma code during World War II. The third chapter is based six years after the war, when Turing is being pursued and tried following a homosexual encounter.
While the film is based on a biography by Andrew Hodges, it takes quite a few liberties, including stretching out a Soviet spying angle. However, Tyldum does well to dramatise the cracking of the code in the midst of Turing’s own particular personal struggles. He has to find ways to make people like him if his machine has to work, including an increasingly angry Commandant Denniston (Charles Dance) and a hovering MI6 whose patience with Turing is wearing thin in the face of a never-ending war.
The most understanding voice is of Joan Clarke (Knightley), whom Turing hires for her ability to solve impossible puzzles.
There were 159 million million million possibilities each code generated by Enigma entailed. In the normal course, it would take 20 million years to decipher. Turing’s team and his machine did that in two years, giving us what would become the modern computer, cutting the war short by an estimated two years, and saving approximately 14 million lives.
But that’s not what this film is about, making it better than other films on the Enigma. It is about the one life it couldn’t.