Unsung war hero Alan Turing gets the Benedict Cumberbatch treatment in The Imitation Game. The result is another brilliant, awards-potential Cumberbatch performance and a riveting film, courtesy of Headhunters director Morten Tyldum.
(HISTORICAL RECORD SPOILERS AHEAD) For those unfamiliar with Turing’s extraordinary achievements, he was largely responsible for cracking the Nazi Enigma coding device in a top secret operation which shortened the war and led to a conservative estimate of around 14 million lives saved. Not only that, the machine he invented to decode Nazi transmissions essentially paved the way for modern computers. Sadly however, Turing’s work was so secret it remained classified for 50 years. Worse, in the early 1950s he was arrested for homosexual activity (a crime in the UK in those days), and offered a choice between prison and chemical castration. He chose the latter, the side effects of which arguably led to his mental demise and eventual suicide.
That a war hero of Turing’s magnitude was treated in such an abominable way is obviously appalling. The fact that he has not yet been properly honoured on film is a wrong The Imitation Game clearly hopes to right. Some have criticised Graham Moore’s excellent screenplay (adapting the book by Andrew Hodges) for skimming too much over Turing’s sexuality and instead choosing to concentrate on his relationship with fellow Bletchley Park mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). I disagree with this criticism, especially given the screenplay’s flashback structure which juggles three time periods: a pivotal early relationship with Turing’s best friend during their school days, the war, and his subsequent arrest and prosecution. Moore and Tyldum approach The Imitation Game – rightly – as a thriller, but they in no way duck the issue of Turing’s sexuality. Furthermore, they have crafted Turing’s story in a way that is as accessible to as wide an audience as possible, something that pays tribute to Turing and remains wholly satisfying in its own right, regardless of the inevitable nit-picking of factual veracity bores.
The supporting cast – which includes Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Rory Kinnear – are strong, and Knightley is also very (some might say surprisingly) good. Yet the film ultimately belongs to Cumberbatch. His Turing is wholly convincing; every bit the “odd duck” his mother described him as, with occasional flashes of Mr Spock, but also demonstrating a vulnerability and bewilderment at how different he was that I found very moving indeed. From a spiritual perspective, this is a film with an important positive message – albeit one shot through with deep melancholy – that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”. Those around us that we find odd, awkward or unsociable might just save the world one day.