The true story of English mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who helped the Allies by cracking the Enigma code during World War II.

Based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges and directed by Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the film portrays Turing at various stages of his life: from his unhappy teenage years via his rise as a code-breaker during WWII, up to his fall from grace after war when he was convicted for his homosexuality.

3.5
Story of a complex character breaks its own code.

Hays era-Hollywood often used code, treating audiences like co-conspirators who knew what was going on, even when they didn’t. The way certain characters held their cigarettes; The occasional lisper; A fey lick on the soundtrack’s piano; A preference for snails over oysters. So, at the risk of spoiling what is likely to be the worst kept secret of 2015, The Imitation Game is not just about the German WWII Enigma machine.

The film opens in 1952’s Manchester with a mystery that a mathematics professor has had his house broken into, says nothing was stolen and refuses to engage with the local police. Intrigued, one clever dick detective, tries to dig deeper and sets up an interview with odd bod Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).

With this framing device in place, The Imitation Game spins back to 1939 when Turing applied for a job with MI6. At the time, Team England was coming second place to the Nazis due to the advantage Hitler’s men had established with their encryption machine called Enigma. (As you’re reading this on the internet, let’s assume encryption requires no explanation).

MI6 want a German linguist to help them crack Enigma’s code and Turing manages to convince (his manner is too brash and clumsy to describe as persuasive) that what England’s secret, secret service really needs is a maths genius and a lover of crossword puzzles.

As it travels across timelines, the film’s structure resembles a crossword: 'The information in 3 Across gives you some of the knowledge required for 6 Down' sort of thing. The war-time cracking of the German code provides info for the Post-war police interview, but it is the third strand that depicts the formative school experiences of a emotionally frail, maths prodigy as he develops a love for ciphers and “the love that dare not speak its name” that becomes vital.

The information is dispensed sparingly, and it’s not until grown-up Alan proposes marriage to his code-breaking collaborator Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightly) that the double meaning of “imitation” is made clear. A relatively minor character breaks through with the withheld information to reveal that the entertaining and often endearing film we’ve been watching is actually about something other than WWII intrigue.

Like the wheels of Turing’s de-coding machine, the three strands of The Imitation Game click into synchronisation. In the post-war strand, the small time cop, thinks he has stumbled on a bigger story, whereas his superiors are obsessed with the homosexuality of the uncomplaining victim (to use the title of the groundbreaking Dirk Bogarde film). During the war, revealing Alan’s secret sexuality may jeopardise his mission and his friendship with Joan. In the schoolboy strand, Alan’s closeness to his classmate chum, Christopher deepens in a way that can only lead to tragedy. The film becomes richer than the mere entertainment it once appeared to be. But having successfully drawn together its ideas The Imitation Game begins to self-destruct like one of Jim Phelps’ tape recorders.

The film plays out in a satisfying manner, but with subtlety having served its purpose, it becomes increasingly bombastic about its intent. Disappointingly, The Imitation Game slides from sophisticated structure into ham-fisted drum banging. In the closing scene, a bonfire of data – a moment of celebration shared by the creators of the Turing machine – appears a series of on-screen postscripts: The saddening knowledge that Turing committed suicide a year after his arrest (though the film bypasses any of the disputed ambiguity of this “fact”). Then acknowledgment that Turing’s machines were widely admired… and then that essentially his work became the prototype for what we call computers… that Turing was given a posthumous pardon by in 2013’s English government. Then comes a phenomenal figure of how many homosexuals had been arrested in Britain between the end of WWII and the contemporary era. Tragic of course, but by this time, the intertitles have a hectoring tone. The film is on a crusade and this finale reduces the man to a symbol, when most of the film had spent most of its time telling me Turing was more than his secret. If one is not moved by the story of Alan Turing by the time the film has reached its conclusion, then no amount of titles and postscripts will further persuade.

“Eccentric”, of course, was often an English codeword for homosexuality, but the finished film ultimately ignores the essence of charming Cumberbatch’s Rain Man-like performance (and other aspects of the script) to push one cause aside for another.

Probably because Turing died many years before Asperger’s syndrome was recognised or possibly there was never any medical diagnosis of whatever form of autism Turing may have experienced, but the final pat message appears to eclipse wider truths. Perhaps the scriptwriters were scared that raising issues of intellectual difference might lead people to wrongly conclude that homosexuality is a disability. Or maybe they just buckled to pressure when Turing’s biographer Alan Hodges squawked about the script by Graham Moore downplaying Turing’s gayness, during the film’s production.

Regardless, sophisticated subtext is supposed to provide pleasure to the audience as they connect the dots. Despite the ingenuity of withholding the film’s true subject until we are in the grip of its wartime intrigue and emotional dilemma, by its end The Imitation Game feels as satisfying as looking at the answers to yesterday’s crossword, as it reduces questions of prejudice to the simplicity of noughts and crosses.

 

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