Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear
Release Date: November 14th 2014 (United Kingdom)
The idea of a film based on the life and times of Alan Turing is a fantastic idea, and it’s uncertain as to why exactly it wasn’t attempted sooner on a grand scale such as ‘The Imitation Game’. Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival (and viewed by the reviewer at the Toronto Film Festival), the buzz surrounding the film is impressive and theoretically bodes well for general release. The script was sold to Warner Bros. for some seven-figure sum, Leonardo Di Caprio showed interest in the movie, the score is written by Alexandre Desplat who has been nominated six times for Academy awards. The film’s facts shows itself to be gunning for critical attention as well as award seasons success.
While aspects of Turing’s life are so varied, the film focuses on arguably his greatest achievement; cracking the German Enigma machine and thereby saving millions of lives. Hiding away in a wooden hut somewhere in the grounds of Bletchley Park, Turing is forced to not only solve the machine’s codes on an incredibly impossible time scale (every twenty-four hours, the machine resets and any work done is therefore irrelevant), but his inability to communicate with others and therefore alienates his colleagues and his commanding officer. Throughout the three years or so that it takes to break the code, there are flashbacks to his trauma-filled school days, and flashforwards to the era where the film is narrated from; Turing has been arrested for suspicion of homosexuality.
The cast is fantastic. Knightly is just the foil a predominantly-male cast deserves, and even takes the period-sexism with what the audience imagines is the quiet seething of an intelligent woman. The team of cryptographers are a perfect ensemble against Turing, and then amazing individuals with Turing. Particularly, Matthew Goode’s Hugh Alexander is extremely likeable. Most importantly, though, is the casting of Turing himself. Cumberbatch has been, during the press release, asked questions about the similarities he faces between Turing and previous roles, notably the titular role in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’. Funnily enough, the first film showed at last year’s TIFF opening night was ‘The Fifth Estate’, starring Cumberbatch in a movie about the creation of WikiLeaks – he again was a social outcast of a genius who the audience could not decide whether he was a good man or not. Whether or not that Cumberbatch has found a niche in his screen casting is probably irrelevant to the viewing of ‘The Imitation Game’, because his Alan Turing is fantastic. There is no doubt as to Turing’s ability to be a good person, and that is largely due to Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the role. He feels human, despite being a mathematical genius. In a particularly sticky scene where one of the cryptographers takes issue with keeping the breaking of Enigma a secret, Turing must insist otherwise, but the audience gets the feeling that he doesn’t want to and it hurts him to, but he therefore must take the role of logic to do what needs to be done. It’s a nuanced performance, and the end scene makes the journey through the shades of Cumberbatch’s Turing all the more worthwhile.
Sadly, even the most spectacular of casts cannot carry a mediocre production all on their own. In a theatre full of film lovers, the third TIFF screening garnered laughs in the most awkward of places. One memorable point where Mark Strong’s MI6 suit was explaining exactly why cracking Enigma was so important, a line is delivered, countered by an unintentionally sarky Turing, and the audience laughs. It is, interestingly, probably not the audience’s fault. The entire script is ladened with these odd moments, and even the touching, emotional scenes that could have been beautiful are detracted by a laugh not thirty seconds on.
The audience is aware, constantly, that the war is happening. Cinematic sequences are filled with cliched images of the Blitz at night, the street clear up the next day, the children on the train being evacuated, poorly executed and serving as clumsy reminders. Conversely, Turing’s homosexuality is mentioned, but it doesn’t feel real. While Cumberbatch has defended the choice to not show any explicit ‘reminders’ of Turing’s predilection for men (aside from the ‘grasping a penis’ line which, again, received a strange laugh – Turing appeared to be in physical pain at the time), the panic and oppression that must have resulted from trying to keep such a thing secret doesn’t come through at all. Turing appears simply a little worried, like he was a little worried about not fitting in. There is no opportunity to show exactly what he feels he must hide, no great sense that he struggles with keeping his secrets at all. It all feels a little shoehorned.
Alan Turing was a brilliant man. He built the first computer during one of the most difficult wars of the 20th century, he contributed much to science in the ten years that followed, and suffered due to his perceived ‘indecency’, choosing chemical castration over prison to remain with his work. The government only issued a formal apology for his treatment after the war in 2009, despite the fact that the secret files were made public two decades before. Turing did incredible things, and so it is understandable that a film was made in his honour. It is, however, a shame that the film did not live up to his memory in any way but the acting.