The Imitation Game is one of the most talked about films of 2014. There has been Oscar buzz regarding Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. The story of the famed mathematician and his team at Bletchley Park during World War II is one of adventure, emotional trauma, and what it’s like to be an outsider. While the movie can technically be classified as a biopic, it is so much more than that—it portrays an important message about how we choose to treat our fellow human beings.
**If you don’t know the historical facts about Alan Turing, I suggest you skip this review as it contains minor spoilers.**
The film begins in the 1950s, just after a robbery has taken place at Alan Turing’s house. The police want to investigate the burglary, but Alan tells them not to bother. One police officer in particular finds this behavior odd, and decides to dig a little into Turing’s past.
Through various flashbacks, we learn that during the early years of the war, Alan volunteered for a top secret job at Bletchley Park. Although the nature of the work has been kept under wraps, he deduces that since the government is looking for cryptographers and mathematicians, they must therefore be trying to break the Enigma code used by the Germans for all communications. He is right, of course, and despite being socially awkward and arrogant about his abilities, he is hired on the spot. He joins a team of other brilliant men (who are more likable than he is), and immediately decides that the methods they want to use to break the code are impractical. As there are millions of possible settings for the Enigma machine, he theorizes that a person cannot possibly break the code—instead, he wants to build a machine to do the work instead, to think for them (and to eventually think for itself).
“What if only a machine can defeat another machine?”
He gains the approval he needs (and more importantly, the massive funding required) from Churchill himself, and proceeds with the project. He is placed in charge of the team, and consequently hires a woman named Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Her addition to the team helps lay the groundwork for the underlying gender roles and politics that parallel Alan’s own sexuality. Joan and Alan become good friends, and at one point he proposes marriage to her. Their engagement is short lived, although her presence in his life remains important.
As the machine is being built, tensions are rising among the members of the team, as well as between the team and Commander Denniston (the head of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley, played by
Tywin Lannister Charles Dance). Denniston loses patience with Alan; he threatens to fire him and to dismantle the machine. After the rest of the men surprisingly back Alan up, saying that they will quit if he is fired, Denniston gives them all a deadline—if the machine cannot help them decode messages within a month’s time, they will all be let go.
Of course, we know what happens next. Alan has a breakthrough, changes some settings on the machine (which he has named Christopher, after a boyhood friend), and they find themselves capable of decoding the unbreakable German messages. But despite this huge accomplishment, nothing is sunshine or rainbows. Alan points out to his team that they cannot let anyone know they have broken Enigma—if they do, and begin acting on intercepted messages, then the Germans will catch on and simply change their coding method. They must leave the decision of which messages will be acted upon to MI6, even if it means that they must let some people die in the process.
The film ends on a sad note—as a result of the police investigation following the burglary, Alan is charged with gross indecency (for homosexual behavior). Allowed to choose between chemical castration and prison, he opts for the former. When Joan asks why, he insists that he cannot be taken away from Christopher or his work. (Tissue warning issued. This is not a drill.)
It has been many years since I have seen a film of such quality. Everything is flawless, from the costumes, to the script, to the pacing. The acting is superb, and I don’t just mean Benedict’s. The rest of the cast holds their own against the backdrop of the war and its aftermath. Alexandre Desplat’s score is stunning, and I sincerely hope that he will garner another Oscar nomination for his impeccable talent.
Benedict Cumberbatch throws himself into this role with his typical fervor and enthusiasm. He’s not just playing another genius—he is Alan Turing for 2 hours, and he makes us feel what he feels. It is a reverent, eccentric performance that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of his best.
But what makes The Imitation Game great is not just its emotional performances or its witty dialogue. Though it follows a predictable storyline, it never falls prey to cliche. While it is easy to look up Alan Turing online, the film still manages to surprise and delight. Despite the fact that what happened to Alan at the end of his life is heartbreaking, The Imitation Game reminds us that he is essentially the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. We owe him a debt that unfortunately can never be repaid. However, we can certainly think twice about the people in our own lives who are outsiders. Those who don’t fit in quite right, those who think differently than we do, those who aren’t wired like us. How do we regard them? Alan Turing was treated appallingly by the very government he saved—it is estimated that his contributions at Bletchley helped to shorten the war by 2 to 4 years, saving millions of innocents in the process. He was never thanked for his efforts. He did not live to see the fruits of his labor. He is a war hero of monumental proportions, and he isn’t even in our history textbooks.
Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.
Praying for an Oscar for Benny,
The Collected Mutineer
Come talk movies with me @ImpalaMutineers.