There may be people left who don’t know about Alan Turing – miracle code-cracker, father of the Computer Age and victim of anti-gay laws – but there really shouldn’t be after the biography, the novel, the TV adaptations, the pardon, the road… So the challenge for The Imitation Game was to say something new – and, often commendably and sometimes less commendably, it did.
On the downside, the film is anchored not by the race against time, as U-boats sank the convoys that crossed The Atlantic carrying the food that sustained a Britain that was completely isolated off the coast of Nazi Europe, but by Turing’s emotional life, its secrets foregrounded more than those of Hut 8. He loses more sleep agonising about Joan Clark than about Colossus (here renamed Christopher after his dead school paramour, turning Turing into something of a Gore Vidal). There’s also a great deal of focus on Turing’s Asperger’s-like disdain for empathy and jokes, something that seems to surprise the near-geniuses with whom he works (who appear to be unimpressed with his Cambridge Fellowship achieved at 24 – an unlikely story as that is very hard currency indeed in those circles).
So much for the Hollywoodisation of the Turing. Focusing on the film’s many strengths, most of which flow from its slightly surprising faith in its audience, yields a more balanced view of an excellent film. Exposition is largely eschewed – we’re trusted to “get” cryptography pretty quickly and to understand why the work at Bletchley Park is the toppest of Top Secret. We’re also trusted to disentangle the layers of espionage and counter-espionage that provided Bletchley Park with its carapaces of deniability and leak justifications – should they prove necessary. Turing may have thought he was in charge; a old buffer Admiral played by a permanently ruddy-faced Charles Dance certainly thought he was in charge; a wisely off-camera Winston Churchill was in charge; but it turns out that the Sir Humphreys were pulling all the strings (as ever).
Best of all are the two stars’ performances. Benedict Cumberbatch catches the quirks, the arrogance and, most of all, the humanity of a man never at ease with his personal destiny, but entirely at ease with that of his his work. It’s always award catnip to play a troubled real-life character, but one can so easily imagine the standing ovations for speeches that laud a man wronged in his time, but rehabilitated by the movies, as Cumberbatch blinks back the tears cradling his BAFTA / Oscar – it’s going to happen isn’t it?
Keira Knightley, though not exactly a dead ringer for Joan Clarke, bubbles with brightness and decency, a balance for Cumberbatch’s ticks and grimaces and, crucially for the film, credible as both a mathematician and a woman for whom Turing can “care for”. She may be cast partly for the glamour she brings to a film that hardly screams it, but she more than pulls her weight – as does her character, despite the caricature prejudice she faces.
Though the Turing argument was won many years ago, the recent Royal Pardon merely confirming what had long since been established public sentiment, an epilogue rightly points out that 45,000 more men were prosecuted (as Turing was) for, well, being gay. Sod the floodgates argument, we should honour the debt we owe to Turing’s work by pardoning every last one of them in his name – The Turing Pardons. Let the Daily Mail lead a campaign against a war hero who unequivocally loved his country and see how far they get with that one.