The Imitation Game

January 17, 2015
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game' (2014)
Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game' (2014)

Michael Keaton should give the Oscars a shake this year for his role in Birdman, but Benedict Cumberbatch will also be in the mix for his portrayal of mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Indeed, Cumberbatch is so good it’s almost enough to make one overlook the liberties this film takes with history.

By now we should all be aware that when a film is “based on a true story” this means it will systematically distort the truth beyond recognition. The Imitation Game does this by introducing an espionage subplot that adds a touch of John Le Carré to Turing’s wartime efforts to crack the secret code the Nazis used to send radio messages.

One might have thought the story was fascinating enough without the fictional touches. In order to find the settings for the Enigma machine which wrote the German codes, Turing and his colleagues invented the ancestor of the computer – a cumbersome arrangement of cogs and dials that could calculate many times faster than the human brain.

It takes a certain skill to turn a scientific triumph into a popular movie, although Hollywood managed to give Madam Curie the full romantic treatment. One of the difficulties about the Turing story is that it doesn’t allow for a conventional love interest. Although Keira Knightley is drafted in as Joan Clarke, the woman to whom Turing was briefly engaged, he was a homosexual in an era that treated any deviation from the norm as a criminal offence.

The film begins in 1951 with the police investigating a break-in at Turing’s home in Manchester. His apparent rudeness makes one of the detectives suspicious that the professor has something to hide. Could he be a Soviet spy, like Burgess and Maclean? This provides a device for Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) to investigate Turing’s war records and eventually conduct an interview in which we slip into a series of long flash-backs.

For some filmmakers Turing’s persecution over his sexual preferences might have made for a sufficiently gripping subplot, but Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum – best known for a very slick thriller, Headhunters (2011) – is compelled to fiddle at the edges. The script pushes most of the characters to the brink of caricature – Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, a chess prodigy and self-styled cad; Charles Dance as the gruff Commander who despises Turing’s arrogant, unorthodox ways; Mark Strong as the mysterious MI6 operative, and so on. Keira Knightley is so mannered in her delivery that I find it increasingly difficult to take her seriously in any role.

Despite all of this, The Imitation Game remains an absorbing film that conveys a sense of the achievement involved in cracking Enigma and the advantage this gave the Allies. It also does justice to the tragedy of a scientific genius and unsung national hero who was stigmatised and punished for his sexuality. The crucial factor is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which makes Turing’s quirks completely believable. In lesser hands, it might have been like watching Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber Two.

The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Written by Graham Moore, after a book by Andrew Hodges
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Charles Dance, Matthew Beard
UK/USA, rated M, 114 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17th January, 2015.