The Imitation Game

Format reviewed: Cinema release

CrownJules Concludes:

5 out of 5 stars
A both heartwarming and heartbreaking portrayal of the life and secrets of one of Britain’s National Heroes, and one of the most influential scientists to never see the fruits of his work due to injustice and persecution.

SPOILER THREAT: Moderate (unless you don’t know the history!)

We are first introduced to Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the day he is arrested for suspected solicitation of another man for his services.  It is through the interrogation of his personal secrets that the truth of his professional life begins to unfold and be understood.

“Are you paying attention?”

Alan Turing is different, and he learns from an early stage exactly how different he is.  He has an affinity for numbers and puzzles, he sees patterns where others do not.  The support given to him by his close childhood friend Christopher enables him to recognise not just his mathematical talents, but also his attraction to males over females.  The latter in the early 20th century was illegal and throughout the rest of his life, although he never denied who and what he was in that respect, he knew how dangerous it was.  Losing Christopher to illness at an early age had a profound effect on Turing as a man.

During the second world war, the Nazi’s communicated using the Enigma code.  A device, the Enigma Machine, encoded text using physical rotors, plugs and wires to change each letter.  The main problem was that the settings used to encode and decode the text had hundreds of millions of possible options, and they changed every day.

A real Enigma Machine.  From my visit to Bletchley  Park a couple of years ago.
A real Enigma Machine. From my visit to Bletchley Park in 2012.

At Bletchley Park a small group consisting of the best minds in Britain have already been working in secret trying to crack Enigma without success.  Alan Turing is interviewed by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to join this group, and almost doesn’t make the cut.  However, he’s very clever and has already figured out what the job is for, so talks his way into being accepted.  In order to find more great minds, those who might not have been given the opportunity to get a higher education, they set a prize crossword puzzle in the newspaper.  Those who respond with the correct solution, are offered to attend a test for potential job opportunity (but they don’t know what for).  Among those respondents is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), an equally brilliant mind.  Being a woman, she’s almost prevented from even walking through the door, but thanks to Turing she is allowed to participate (and wipes the floor with the competition!).  She was lucky to have someone who thinks differently in charge of the test.

The code breaking efforts up to now have primarily been manual trial and error; pencil and paper mathematics.  Turing realises that this is far too slow, and proposes to build a machine to calculate the solutions for them.  Never before has a machine been used in this way, and will take money to build and test.  No one (other than Joan) recognises how revolutionary this idea is.  Alan generally works alone, and the rest of the team don’t like that much.  Due to the money required, and the length of time it is taking to create a working machine, Commander Denniston pulls the plug on Turing’s work.  So, Turing sends a letter directly to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and he countermands Denniston’s order.

History shows that they eventually succeeded in breaking the Enigma code.  The war against the Nazi’s was won.  Alan Turing’s work, they say, shortened the war by approximately 2 years and saved 14,000,000 (14 Million) lives.  History also shows how Turing himself was eventually convicted for being homosexual.  He was given a choice: prison, or a term of hormonal treatment (oestrogen injections – chemical castration) to suppress his homosexual side.  Alan Turing died by his own hand in 1954, aged only 41.

Cumberbatch portrays Turing with delicacy, subtlety and compassion.  Knightley plays Clarke with exceptional integrity and strength.  The importance of Joan Clarke’s role in supporting Turing as both friend and colleague cannot be overstated.  The entire supporting ensemble contribute to make this film a masterpiece.  There has been some criticism regarding the lack of (explicit) homosexual (or just sexual) visuals/content in this movie.  I’m of the opinion that it wasn’t necessary, nor would it have added anything to the narrative.  Turing was gay, fact; and it was a facet of the story, just as it was a facet of the man.  As a film with an historical focus, it can be viewed by a whole family together, kids, parents, granny and grandpa; and they’ll all learn something.

Alan Turing died practically unknown and uncelebrated for his work.  But his research and insights changed the world.  We would not have had the computer age, our smartphones, a huge proportion of the technology we rely on every day without him.  In 2013 Turing was granted a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II.  Exoneration is one thing, but telling his story to the whole world is another.  It’s long overdue, but this film does justice to a British National Hero.

Statue of Alan Turing by AA at Bletchley Park.
Statue of Alan Turing in layers of slate by Stephen Kettle at Bletchley Park.

Want to understand more about the science and mathematics behind decoding Enigma?  This helpful youtube video is a good start, “Because Science” with Kyle Hill via Nerdist:

And finally, a shout out to the Imitation Game UK twitter account @ImitationGameUK which had a competition to win a poster.. and I did!  Hooray!

Thanks to the Imitation Game UK twitter account, I won this enormous poster of Cumberbatch as Turing.  I love twitter!
Thanks to the @ImitationGameUK twitter account, I won this enormous poster of Cumberbatch as Turing.  I love twitter!

Links for more information:
My trip to Bletchley Park, back in 2012
Official Bletchley Park Website
Alan Turing page on Wikipedia