2016.43: The Imitation Game (Amazon Prime/VOD)
It is tempting to suggest that The Imitation Game is all about Benedict Cumberbatch’s pretty extraordinary performance as Alan Turing, the mathematics prodigy who is recruited to work at Bletchley Radio Manufacturing to covertly crack the German’s Enigma coding machine. Cumberbatch is brilliant at showing a vulnerable side to so many of his characters- even during Shakespeare’s infamous character-assassination of Richard III in the recent Hollow Crown series. It is likewise demonstrated in the vulnerability and warmth in his generally cool and aloof Sherlock Holmes. With Alan Turing he works similar magic portraying an eccentric, socially-challenged genius who can make more sense of numbers and cryptography than he can people, while trying to hide his homosexuality that always threatens to destroy his career and make him a social pariah. It’s a fascinating performance and I can understand all the media attention to it during awards season (unfortunately the film arrived at the same time as Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything- two career-highlight performances of two real-life scientists, what’s the odds? There’s a stat the real Turing might have found interesting to fathom).
Fortunately there is more to The Imitation Game than a great central performance, and while on the subject of The Theory of Everything, I actually think The Imitation Game is the better film, whatever one thinks of the merits of the two star performances. It benefits from a clearer focus on what the story is. The Imitation Game brilliantly conveys the world of code-breaking and spycraft during World War Two, and is centered on Turing’s work to create a machine capable of quickly performing 159 million permutations to break the German Enigma code that’s changed daily. Turing’s proposed solution proves to be a leap of thinking and technology that seems quite insane to his co-workers and superiors.
The film establishes the high stakes by showing war footage and explaining the astronomical numbers of lives at risk, both on the frontline and on the homefront, with the Allies losing the war. The importance of breaking the Enigma code is paramount and the tension is palpable, but for Turing it’s not just simply a matter of building his machine- it’s maintaining his position long enough to succeed, and being able to communicate with and manage his team without the whole project collapsing around him. As Turing’s work on the machine progresses, the film uses a framing device set in 1951 and flashbacks to his childhood to further delve into Turing’s character and background. In other films this can often threaten to derail the pace and distract from the core plot, but The Imitation Game manages to get the balance right.
The film isn’t perfect though. Although the film pursues the fact of Turing’s homesexuality in a society in which it is illegal, and makes great weight of it, it could be argued that the film nonetheless skirts around it for fear of upsetting less liberal viewers. We never see Turing in a relationship with a man and there’s nothing even approaching a gay sex scene, so other than showing him socially awkward amongst people there’s little to really imply he is gay other when he admits it or the framing device concerning a police investigation in 1951. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see a film in which a character’s homosexuality isn’t bashed over your head with graphic scenes. Besides, a subtext to the film is all about secrets and Turing’s attempts to keep that side of his life private.
On the whole it is a very entertaining, thrilling and inspirational film blessed with a great central performance and a fine supporting cast. While some may criticise how the film skirts around the central issue of homesexuality, its nontheless a sober reminder of how much society has moved on and changed for the better in the decades since. The injustice of what happened to Alan Turing and his status as a war hero whose work arguably saved millions of lives is an important story to tell, and on the whole this film does this exceedingly well.