Good film can move you. Great film can move you to tears. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s biographical thriller The Imitation Game is unlikely to leave a dry eye in the house. Based on the life story of mathematician Alan Turing – whose work at the government’s top secret codebreaking centre Bletchley Park, helped turn around Britain’s fortunes during World War II – this stunning piece of cinema reminds you why film is still one of our most powerful and evocative art forms.
Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his colleagues, including his future fiancé Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), were employed during World War II to assist the British government in the deciphering and breaking of military codes sent daily by Germany to their troops on the front line. The intrigue and secrets which surrounded Bletchley Park – the intelligence headquarters where they carried out their work – however, was only half the story: the persecution and trials Turing underwent personally were as bad as any perpetrated in the name of the war.
Like the codes Turing and his colleagues spent long months deciphering during the turbulent years of the Second World War, The Imitation Game tells a multifaceted story, of which the work done at Bletchley Park, played only a small part. A true scientist Turing was a man who remained untouched, for the greater part, by the world around him and those who inhabited it. There were occasions, as Tyldum’s film evocatively depicts, when this detachment from the material world came across as callous to those around him – as depicted in one particularly harrowing scene where Turing is forced to make a specific decision with devastating repercussions. However, as the film shows, Turing’s obsessive dedication to his work and self-enforced exile from intimacy with those close to him, was due as much to incidents during his formative school years, and the medieval attitude towards homosexuality still prevalent in Britain until recent times, as to any inadequacy on his part as a person.
Which is the best thing about Tyldum’s film and its screenplay by American writer Graham Moore, based on author Andrew Hodges’ book ‘Alan Turing: The Enigma’. Here is a story in two parts. As a war time thriller and account of one of history’s most important yet secretive inventions, it totally envelopes the viewer. The proceedings excite and stir as well as any full-on adventure film through Tyldum’s believable period recreation – filmed as far as possible in real locations – interspersed periodically with archive footage, as opposed to dramatised action of which there is surprisingly little. Equally, the clever and frequently acidly witty dialogue, treats the subject of Turing’s sexuality and relationships – including an early infatuation with a boarding school classmate and later engagement to fellow cryptographer Joan Clarke – with a sensitivity frequently missing from dramas dealing with the subject of homosexuality. The film has been criticised in some circles due to its ‘glossing over’ of the story’s more sordid aspects – namely Turing’s persecution during the 1950s for incidents of gross indecency, in a time when homosexuality was still seen as a crime leading to persecution and imprisonment. However its avoidance of the graphic depiction of such said incidents is perfectly in keeping with its overall approach, stopping a trivialisation of the film’s sensitive subject matters.
It is good to see that, on occasions, major productions can still see beyond the hype, and cast a film from the heart. One can only imagine the result had Leonardo Dicaprio been given the part of Turing, which was a rumoured possibility during the early stages of production. Instead the casting of English stars Cumberbatch and Knightley in the leads – with strong support from names like Matthew Goode, Charles Dance and Rory Kinnear – gives the film an added strength. As the insular and inwardly tormented mathematical prodigy, who had to struggle with not only personal but also ethical and social issues, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is both heartfelt and beautiful, well worthy of the praise it has already garnered.
Until his posthumous pardon last year by Her Majesty the Queen, Turing was still disparaged as much for his sexuality as he was praised for the astounding and immeasurable work he did to save millions of lives during World War 2. The inspiring and emotive film which is The Imitation Game should help greatly with the continued rehabilitation of his memory in the annals of world history.