An Enigma Variation
'...It's as if the writers wanted to tell the story of the Bletchley Park station but realised that this would involve lots of rather complex stuff about cryptography, and make the lead character homosexual... There's a great film waiting to be made about the station's contribution to the winning of the Second World War...'
- some idiot on the internet in 2001, writing about a different film
Well, thirteen years is an extremely long time in cinema, and you can't keep a good idea down forever. The only question is, just how much credit should I be prepared to take for the eventual appearance of Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game? I am prepared to be magnanimous about this, naturally.
The Imitation Game is named after one of the mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing's landmark papers discussing the potential and nature of artificial intelligence (indeed, for many years Turing was probably best known as the creator of the Turing test, a thought-experiment designed to assess whether an artificial network was truly intelligent or not). Although The Imitation Game is itself only very tangentially about AI, it is still at least the third major release this year (after Her and Transcendence) to be concerned with the topic in some way. Is this indicative of the fact that we have reached some sort of cultural tipping point with respect to AI? Perhaps, perhaps not: as I say, this is fundamentally a film about something else.
On the surface it looks very much like the kind of period drama which the British film industry does so well, for all that this particular project was written by an American and directed by a Norwegian. It is, for one thing, primarily set during the Second World War, an era distant enough to be interesting yet close enough to still be accessible and nostalgic, a time of unambiguous values and comfortingly definite moral certainties.
As the film opens, Britain is struggling to contend with the Nazi war machine, its intelligence effort seriously hampered by the fact that the enemy is using a code system known as Enigma, which is widely held to be completely unbreakable, simply due to the sheer number of possible solutions. Amongst the people interviewing to join the Admiralty's team working to break Enigma is maths and cryptology prodigy Alan Turing (Cumbersome Bandersnatch). Turing's social awkwardness and lack of modesty about his considerable intellect do not win him many friends on the project, but he eventually rises to become team leader and sets about putting into operation his plan to break the Enigma system.
This involves building what he terms a Universal Machine – or, as we would call it nowadays, a computer - to run through the millions of possible Enigma solutions at immense speeds. To assist him with this he assembles a group of brilliant linguists, logicians, and crossword-puzzlers, amongst them Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and they set out to change the course of the war...
Running in parallel with this are two other narratives, much more about Turing the man: a boyhood relationship with a fellow pupil at his school, and the circumstances surrounding the police investigation of Turing in the early 1950s, in which the investigating detective (Rory Kinnear) initially believes he has uncovered a Soviet spy, only to realise he has in fact stumbled upon a different kind of secret: that of Turing's sexuality. The consequences of this are to shape the final years of Turing's life.
It has to be said that over the last few years, Benedict Cumberbatch has lent himself more to high-profile projects that increase his fanboy (and fangirl)-friendliness, rather than his stature as a serious actor. Sherlock Holmes, Smaug, Khan Noonian Singh (and, it's rumoured, Doctor Strange) – none of them are exactly the kind of thing you win Oscars for. (Perhaps I'm being unfair – he was, after all, in serious films like The Fifth Estate and Twelve Years a Slave, too.) However, while it initially looks like Turing is a part perilously close to the sort of thing Cumberbatch can do in his sleep (utterly brilliant, socially useless genius), it does allow him the opportunity to give a great movie actor performance. His Turing is believably prodigious when it comes to anything cerebral, but equally at a loss when dealing with people operating on a more everyday level.
However, while the movie is undoubtedly Cumberbatch's, its success is also due to the strength of the performances across the board. There's a nice ensemble performance from the team of cryptographers which Turing finds himself in command of, with Matthew Goode the most prominent of these, while Charles Dance is on top form as the naval commander who initially employs Turing and rapidly grows to hate his most gifted underling. Doing typically excellent work, also, is Mark Strong, here playing the MI6 officer overseeing the Bletchley Park project. Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, struggles to make the same kind of impression in a part which is perhaps slightly underwritten, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.
The script is complex and manages to tell an intricate story well, although it did seem to me that it could have gone a bit more into the detail of how Turing's machine actually operated in breaking the Enigma cipher (sorry, should have said there would be spoilers): thoughtful and mature though the film is, it still feels as though it's shying away from really delving into the mechanics of the codebreaking effort in favour of a more accessible human story. Perhaps this is understandable, given this is a drama rather than a historical documentary.
I also found myself feeling a little disappointed by the closing stages of the film: it peaks with Turing's great triumph, the breaking of the Enigma codes, and the intelligence effort which followed – the decisions as to how much information the Allies could utilise without revealing to the Nazis that their system had been compromised – is somewhat passed over. There was the potential there for a very thought-provoking and serious drama, hardly any of which is utilised.
Then again, this is the story of Turing the man, not his machines or the projects which he oversaw. It is gratifying that someone of such singular gifts, who made such an unparalleled contribution to preserving our way of life, is finally receiving his due acknowledgement. You can perhaps criticise The Imitation Game for not going deeply enough into Turing's codebreaking work, or his pioneering of computer science, or his invention of mathematical biology. You can criticise it for rewriting history or glossing over Turing's sexuality (which is spoken of but never really depicted). But the fact remains that this, finally, is a film actually about Alan Turing, and a prestigious and very well-made one too. An important film in many ways, and well worth seeing.