A very British hero
Robert Henderson’s take on the Turing biopic
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing
Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke
Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander
Mark Strong as Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies
Charles Dance as Cdr. Alastair Denniston
Allen Leech as John Cairncross
Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton
Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock
Alex Lawther as Young Turing
Jack Bannon as Christopher Morcom
Director: Morten Tyldum
Like the recent Mr Turner, this is a flawed film, which is worth seeing only because of the performance of the central character, in this case Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the English mathematician, pioneering computer theorist and code breaker Alan Turing. Moreover, it is worth seeing not because it represented Turing’s personality and life faithfully, but because the character on the screen was an eminently watchable antisocial monster, who generated both humour and pathos because he was unaware of his psychological deformity.
The main action takes place during Turing’s time at the World War 2 Bletchley Park code breaking unit, topped and tailed by flashbacks to his schooldays at Sherborne where he forms an infatuation for a boy called Christopher Morcom who dies in his teens and flash-forwards to his arrest and prosecution for indecency. The schooldays and police scenes add little to the film, indeed could be said to get in the way of Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a man breaking all the social rules not on purpose but simply because he does not understand how the game is played.
There is a good deal of humour in the film, most of it resulting from Turing’s supposed extreme antisocial personality traits. This begins early on, when he meets the head of Bletchley Park Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Turing is his usual socially dysfunctional self. After a few minutes Denniston looks at Turing’s CV and says sardonically, “Ah, you’re a mathematician. Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Turing replies without a shred of awareness at his literal mindedness, “Because you just read it on that paper?” he ventures pointing at the CV in Dance’s hand. The look on Dance’s face is priceless.
One of the most telling and saddest scenes in the film is where Turing tells a joke. He tells it awkwardly which is doubly poignant, because of his extraordinarily clumsy reaching out for normal human interaction and because the nature of the joke is such that it is easy to see why it would have been accessible to a mind like his, which would generally have great difficulty in understanding jokes because of his lack of psychological awareness. The joke is this. Two men are out in the wild and a bear spots them. One of the two starts putting on his shoes while the other says in amazement what on earth on are you doing that for, you will never outrun the bear? I don’t have to, replies the other; I only have to outrun you. The joke suits the onscreen Turing because it presents him with a binary choice: two men, one bear equals only one person caught and eaten and requires absolutely no psychological insight.
But entertaining as these aspects of the film are there is the problem of veracity. The primary difficulty is the character of Turing. A certain emphasising of character traits is legitimate as a dramatic device, but there is always the danger that the emphasis will become so exaggerated that the essence of a person is lost. I suspect that is what happened here. The film represents him as having a startling directness, which could be hideously rude, literal mindedness, childlike egotism and manic single-mindedness. Whether Turing’s antisocial tendencies were so pronounced is dubious. He was certainly not the easiest person to get along with, for example, his habit of wanting to be hands-on with machinery – he was never happier than when he had a soldering iron or a pair of wire-cutters in his hands – regularly drove engineers mad as he fiddled with what they made or set up. He was also undeniably single-minded when he was working on an intellectual task. Nor did he have a deeply rooted social life, which suggests introspection. There was also his excruciatingly annoying high-pitched laugh, a behavioural trick the film surprisingly fails to utilise. However, none of that adds up to someone with whom it was utterly impossible to work. The Turing of the film would have been desperately difficult to tolerate at the personal level and very disruptive of work such the code-breaking because it requires intense concentration and the exclusion of distractions. The Turing of the film is a past master at creating emotional chaos.
The misrepresentation of reality does not stop there. The film is essentially a biopic and as so often with such films the director and screenplay writer take very large liberties with the truth. A few important examples: there is no evidence that Turing ever had much if anything to do with Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (Mark Strong), but there’s was a relationship of some importance to the film. Turing is also shown working with closely the traitor John Cairncross, discovering Cairncross’ treason and Cairncross gaining Turing’s silence about his treason for some time by blackmailing Turing over his sexuality. There is also no evidence for this. The mathematician Joan Clarke is shown as meeting Turing for the first time when she answers a newspaper advert Turing has placed asking for people who were good at crosswords to attend an assessment interview where they are asked to do the Times crossword in eight minutes. In the film Clarke does it quickest in six minutes. The reality is that Clarke was recruited to Bletchley by her old Cambridge academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman. The casting of the very attractive Keira Knightly as Clarke, who was something of a plain Jane, is also problematic, because it alters the relationship between Clarke and Turing in the viewer’s mind. One of the code-breakers in the film Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) is shown distraught when a German message is decoded and shows a convoy on which Hilton’s brother is travelling to be the target of coming U-Boat action. Turing argues that the message must not be used to warn the convoy for fear of alerting the Germans to the fact that the code had been broken. In reality, Hilton had no such brother. There is also the general point that perhaps Turing was given too much prominence with contributions by others at Bletchley underplayed or ignored completely, for example, the Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who designed ‘Colossus’ – the world’s first programmable computer.
Does all of this matter? It depends whether the viewer treats the film as a biopic/historical drama, a fictional thriller or merely as a vehicle to display, whether accurate or not, the character of Turing. As a biopic or historical drama it is difficult to treat it seriously because of the liberties taken with facts. As a thriller it never really takes off, not least because we know the ending and little is made of Cairncross’ treason. As a vehicle for an arresting realisation of a complex, highly unusual and fascinating character it succeeds. It might even be described as a good if bizarre comedy of manners.
The actual work at Bletchley was by its nature difficult for the film to make much of as drama both because the work is esoteric and because a main thrust of the film was to show Turing’s intelligence. Portraying an educated intelligence is one of the most difficult things in acting because simply having a character spout a few academic facts or theories seems trivial to those who understand the subject at which the intelligence is directed and meaningless mumbo-jumbo to the majority who come to the subject cold. (Because of this the Eureka! moments in the film when breakthroughs were made clanked in a decidedly forced manner). The quality of intelligence needs to be shown in the quickness and certainty of a character. Amongst modern British actors Ralph Fiennes and Cumberbatch are probably the best exponents because both have a donnish look and manner about them. Here Cumberbatch’s natural reserve also played to the isolated and distracted nature of the character. The rest of the cast are, as one would expect from an ensemble of British actors, all good insofar as their roles allow. But they are all, even Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, utterly dwarfed by Cumberbatch. They simply do not have much chance than to be rather one-dimensional, although Charles Dance splenetic Commander Denniston is an amusing turn and Mark Strong is his usual satisfyingly sinister self.
Importantly the film does not spend an inordinate amount of time focused on Turing’s homosexuality. It would have been very easy to make a film which was a piece of politically correct propaganda, full of angst about the treatment Turing received after being charged with gross indecency with a total disregard for the context of the time when this occurred. But to make such a film would have been to greatly diminish Turing as a person, because what was really important about him was not his sexuality but his great intellect and the use he made of it. However, the film did mistakenly try to show Turing as suffering from a loss of intellectual power when Clarke visited him after his conviction for indecency. (Again, there is no evidence for this event). The film implied that the diminished intellect was due to the hormonal treatment Turing had agreed to rather than go to prison. In fact, Turing retained his mental powers right up to his death, publishing an important paper on biological mathematics The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in 1952.
To read of Turing’s immense and broad ranging intellectual achievement, which covered mathematics, computing, code-breaking and biological-related mathematics is to inevitably think of the loss resulting from his death, but the fact that he was prosecuted despite having like Othello “done the state some service” is reassuring because it shows no one was above the law.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s Film Critic