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Film Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014; Directed by Morten Tyldum)

“Are you paying attention?” The pointed question is a little smug and a lot direct. Spoken by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) in voiceover at the opening of The Imitation Game, a fictionalized document of his work on breaking the Enigma code for Britain during World War II, the line echoes the similar introduction to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, another (much more interesting) film about the relationship between perception and reality.

Where The Prestige sees the practice of stage magic melding with the much more rational, powerful, and psychologically unsettling realm of science, The Imitation Game makes the scrupulously rational, scientific mind-work of code-breaking and electronic design seem more magical and connected indistinctly to pop-psych conceptions of emotional fulfillment and human connection. While The Prestige embedded potent metaphors for the fragmentation of the self in the modern world in the illusions of its stage magicians protagonists, The Imitation Game trades in more facile applications of the division of identity. There is the face presented to the world and there are hidden secrets behind that; the projected self as a coded cypher of the true self, and life as an ongoing Turing test of self-definition as a fully-fledged, authentic human being as opposed to an imitation of one.

This overwrought comparison of fairly unlike works is a circuitous way of coming around to say that The Imitation Game takes a tremendous feat of mental acuity and technical imagination with both immediate and far-reaching historical effects and turns it into a soppy, overtly sentimentalized populist narrative of Overcoming Obstacles and Believing in Yourself. That’s a bit too dismissive a judgement, but in broad strokes it isn’t off-base. Morten Tyldum, directing the Oscar-winning screenplay by Graham Moore based on mathematician Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing, has some hints of wit and style as a filmmaker (there’s a cut from a shot of a U-boat torpedo launching at the hull of a British convoy ship to a cigarette horizontally extinguished in an ashtray that might have made Hitchcock giggle). He’s also got a fine (albeit painfully typecast) group of actors at his disposal, Cumberbatch and a refreshingly casual Keira Knightley foremost. But he can’t wrest the cinematic story of Turing and his code-breaking proto-computer away from the ravenous rabble of cliches that clutch tightly to it.

I’ve previously written about the British popular interest in the achievements of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park and their efforts to break the Enigma, the encryption machine and its coded protocol in which all German communications were transmitted during WWII. I found in this revived interest (or brand-new interest, considering its relatively recent declassification) to be a contemporary expression of the country’s progressive cultural and intellectual elite’s ambitions to recast the narrative of Britain’s war years in more amenable terms. Britons and the wider world had likewise heard plenty of heroic tales of masculine martial bravery and arch-conservative Churchill’s resolute nature and the grim survivalism of the Blitz. It was high time for underappreciated mental geniuses and math prodigies of the Oxbridge axis to get their due for out-thinking Hitler while the Yanks and the Soviets stomped his legions on the continent.

There is more than an element of this predilection to The Imitation Game. It is most clearly manifested in the screenplay’s choice to present Turing, a clear prodigy and genius who produced cutting edge work wherever he went and was welcome and productive from the start at Bletchley, as an awkward and socially-crippled underdog. Turing’s Asperger-esque personality is so central to Cumberbatch’s well-observed and sometimes moving performance that it seems churlish to point out that the real man was not really like that at all, and indeed was seen as charming, likable, and an excellent colleague by his Station X compatriots, rather than the self-involved hyper-intellectual loner portrayed onscreen who only achieved great things when opening up to friendship and collaboration. After all, the big Enigma breakthrough here comes not after hours of mental labour in the huts but over drinks and flirtation in a pub: 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, only with the latter visible on a cold pint glass.

But the historical reality undercuts the cinematic fantasy so damagingly that it’s ultimately hard to overlook. Turing and his Bletchley comrade (and short-lived fiancee) Joan Clarke (Knightley) return at key moments to a cornball pep-talk line about the people that no one imagines anything of accomplishing the things that no one can imagine. It’s applied by Turing to Clarke at first, who is limited in her options as a woman in the professional world of men, but comes to be applied by Clarke to Turing, so pinioned in the film by his personality quirks and homosexual secret (which the film acknowledges but never really builds into a major part of who he is) that he is in jeopardy of failing to live up to his prodigal potential. When taken in concert with knowledge of the real Turing, this line is patently ridiculous. Great things were expected of Turing from a very young age, and he delivered tenfold, taking a leading role in work that, by expert accounts, shortened the deadliest war in human history by at least two years while simultaneously founding modern computer science in the process.


The decoded message is… “I AM SHERLOCKED”?

The Imitation Game does not miss the tragic turn at the end of Turing’s life, depicting a physically diminished (he was an Olympic-calibre distance runner in his youth) and mentally broken man convicted of homosexual indecency and chemically castrated before committing suicide (officially, at least; some ambiguity lingers around that question, and is cleverly teased in the film before a concluding subtitle parrots the suicide line). It works up to this sad denoument with the cumbersome subplot of a Manchester detective (Rory Kinnear) who suspects Turing of being a Soviet spy and stumbles onto the true secret of his sexual preferences (in addition to this narrative thread and the wartime Enigma-breaking scenes, Turing boarding-school days and first same-sex love is also detailed).

It’s from this subplot that springs the opening voiceover, which prefaces an interrogation of Turing by the police detective who suspects him of malfeasance during which, as a post-modern narrative framing device, he details his top-secret work at Bletchley Park, which was hushed up both during the war and well afterwards. Let’s put aside the believability of this conceit, or rather the lack thereof; it seems exceedingly unlikely that, less than a decade from the war’s end and firmly in the midst of nascent Cold War paranoia, Turing would have revealed the classified details of the Enigma mission, even to save his own skin from imprisonment (execution for high treason is firmly threatened to any codebreaker who does so). The key portion of the interview has Turing take the standards of his test for artificial intelligence and asks them to be applied to his own actions and choices. Is he man, or is he machine? The detective cannot judge, but he can arrest him for being a homosexual.

The Imitation Game might have begged the same question of its audience were it a different, more challenging sort of movie. But it is grounded in emotional surges rather than rational rigour, conventional appeals to sentiment rather than intellectual consideration of the divided, alienated self. It’s a big ask, perhaps, for a film about Alan Turing to reinvent its context in the way that Turing reinvented our technological one. But more might reasonably have been expected of The Imitation Game, an intelligently made film in many ways with most elements in the right place that becomes a kind of bildungsroman/chaste romance/costume drama/half-hearted spy thriller of a mildly melodramatic nature. It’s more man than machine, and the human touch is what we tend to want from movies in general, after all. Some additional valuation of mental prowess and a deeper engagement with Turing’s identity and the cruel ironies of his life and this might have really been something special.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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  1. February 17, 2016 at 5:22 pm

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