In a purely cinematic sense, nothing gives me greater joy than waving goodbye to the brainless blockbusters of the summer and welcoming the autumn and winter season of films that are here for one thing, the prospect of awards. One of the first of this aspiring bunch of releases hoping to grab the attention of both the American and British film academies is The Imitation Game, a film centred around the awe inspiring yet ultimately tragic life of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who was heavily instrumental in the breaking of the Enigma code during World War II, helping the Allied Forces win and cut the war by two years, saving approximately fourteen million lives. With a plethora of well known films displaying the heroism of the fighting soldiers during the conflict, I was interested to see a war film with a different angle, and Turing’s story is one so interesting and emotional that a major big screen adaptation seemed absolutely justified and inevitable.
The Imitation Game is a strong and enjoyable combination of historical drama and personal biography, containing a narrative timeline that jumps from decade to decade piecing together for the audience the story of the achievements at Bletchley Park alongside the melancholy private life of the film’s protagonist Alan Turing. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is one of those awkward, socially inept geniuses that have become something of a cinematic staple cliche in narratives that involve the solving a code or invention of a world changing property, who is tasked with the mission of breaking the Enigma code, the method of encrypted messaging that the Germans used to contact and coordinate military strikes against the enemy. Through segments of Turing’s childhood and through his interactions with his Bletchley Park colleagues we come to understand that he is a struggle to befriend but pure of heart and the best of men, misunderstood but unflinchingly likeable. Though a degree of artistic licence has no doubt been taken with certain historical aspects of the plot to provide a rounder cinematic narrative experience, all of the film’s key set pieces are expertly undertaken. The moment that Turing and his companions finally break the code put the hair on the back of my neck up and gave me goosebumps, a historical piece such as this relies on the giving the audience satisfaction in seeing things that already know have taken place, and The Imitation Game brilliantly involves the audience in such a way that a sixty year old discovery seems fresh and invigorating.
Aside from his genius, the other side of Turing’s life that is highlighted in the film is his homosexuality. The majority of the picture’s most emotional moments come towards the conclusion when the ordeal of Turing’s 1952 conviction for homosexual activity and subsequent chemical castration treatment are revealed. The huge emotional punch of witnessing the character to whom we owe so much be treated in such a tragic and barbaric way is absolutely heartbreaking. Heart break is then followed by anger at the thought that as recently as fifty years ago men were being physically damaged and punished for loving their own gender, and Turing subsequent suicide in 1954 bookmarks his story with a final note of utter tragedy that hits the audience hard, many around me in the cinema were in tears for a number of minutes after the credits. This is not to say, however, that the entire film is a depressing cry-fest, in fact that bulk of the Bletchley Park action is incredibly captivating and engrossing, harking to the thriller genre and allowing the audience to marvel at the power of team work and ability of a small group of minds to save the lives of millions and help to change the world on a monumental scale.
Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely superb in the lead role, playing Alan Turing with a degree of arrogance and superiority but always retaining reverence and respect. It is a performance of great depth, I imagine it can be difficult to play to a greater intellectual capacity than your own but Cumberbatch never seems as though he is treading water and his Turing is utterly believable and nuanced. His name will surely be etched on to a handful of major trophies when the time comes. Special mention must also go to Alex Lawther as schoolboy Turing, giving a brilliant performance as the young genius who is struggling not only with being an intellectual outsider but also trying to come to terms with his emerging sexuality. The remaining roles of note are reserved for Turing’s Bletchley Park team, played by Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard and Allen Leech, all of whom give solid and enjoyable performances, Knightley in particular being less wooden and annoying that I have found her to be in the past. The film really, though, lives and dies by the performance of its leading man, and Cumberbatch carries the weight of Turing’s story with effortless skill and dignity.
Overall, The Imitation Game takes its place among the crop of British historical pictures that help to educate the audience without ever forgetting to entertain them. It is an incredible story from many angles, a film that reminds us of what humans are capable of on both sides of the spectrum, that a single mind can hold the key to winning a long and bloody war, and that humanity can treat itself appallingly in many ways, including unjust and outrageous prejudice against natural sexuality that can both mentally and physically destroy people. Alan Turing must be regarded as a national hero who was treated in one of the most inhumane ways imaginable, it is a pity that he was never treated in the way that his achievements deserved. I doubt that the film will be one you keep going back to, but it is an excellent and important watch nonetheless.