There’s a crucial moment in The Imitation Game, the new biopic about Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) cracking the unbreakable German Enigma Code during World War II, when the code-cracking gang at Bletchley Park realises that the Germans end their dispatches with the phrase “Heil Hitler.” This Eureka moment emerges from an offhand comment, but if you’ve ever written a line of code, you’ll understand just how profoundly it changes the playing field — and just how exciting that feeling of finally solving the problem is.
When they started their work, they faced the challenge of checking 150 million million possible ways to wire the Enigma machine — it would take millions of years to check this by hand and the Nazis rewire the machine daily — to find the winning combination. Now, all they have to do is find the combination that translates to “Heil Hitler.” The first time they input this new setting into Turing’s code-cracking machine, a proto-computer with moving parts, it speeds up the calculations immensely. Before, the machine would calculate endlessly; suddenly, it comes to a stop, having found the winning combination within minutes. They’ve cracked the code.
I’m pretty sure the reason I was practically pumping my fist in the air at this point is because I’ve written lots of code. I understood that they’d just developed their first meaningful algorithm. A scientific revolution in computing just happened, and I understood why this made it possible to crack the impossible code. Although the film lays out early on the difficulty of the task, and we get to see just how quickly the machine figures things out with this new information, the inner-workings of what’s really happened is only subtly portrayed. If you haven’t coded, you’ll have to go by the suddenly fast-moving, swiveling camera, and the energy with which the entire cast starts running from place to place, to understand that excitement is in the air — something big just happened. You might feel a little manipulated, too.
The central problem of The Imitation Game is that it doesn’t understand what it’s like to be either a programmer or gay. The filmmakers clearly don’t understand how Turing’s Enigma-cracking machine works since Turing is never actually fiddling with the logic gates on it — the bits that make the machine intelligent — or the moving parts, but instead only ever touching immobile structures. When he pins up his sketches for the machine on the wall, it should show an interconnected network of logic gates, but it’s a disconnected mess. And there’s no clarity — either from a verbal explanation or the way the camera moves — regarding why some of the knobs of Turing’s machine spin faster than others. The filmmaker and the actors clearly do not understand this machine, so how can the audience be expected to?
Similarly, the film frequently conflates Turing’s social awkwardness — his inability to behave like a regular human — with his homosexuality, even though these are two very different, very separate things. Both may involve, for Turing, a certain “Imitation Game” of his own — imitating a person to fit in, imitating a heterosexual because homosexuality was illegal — but these are entirely different things.
From the inexcusably sententious script alone, you’d have a hard time figuring out that Alan Turing is a one in a million genius: he speaks largely without wit and in cliches (“You need me a whole lot more than I need you”). But it’s the strength of Cumberbatch’s performance that illuminates Turing as a complicated man: arrogant yet socially insecure, compassionate yet usually oblivious to the feelings of others, and above all, driven by the work, by solving the puzzle. Cumberbatch can speak at the speed of thought, a thrilling thing to watch, and so necessary when portraying a highly intelligent man — it makes me excited to see his Hamlet.
Director Morten Tyldum shoots Alan almost entirely in close-up, isolating him from the group around him, but also creating a real intimacy between him and us, the audience. We see his micro-expressions clearly, which means a raised eyebrow. a twitch in the eye, or a sly smile become a window into this man’s thought process. Cumberbatch’s reaction shot is what will make somebody else’s throwaway line suddenly sing; the same is true of many of the others in the ensemble cast, especially Matthew Goode whose mischievous smile speaks volumes. Every two-shot that Turing is in has to be earned. Although Cumberbatch’s performance is capital A Acting, I felt it was more effective and emotionally resonant than his usually affected performances, but here the numerous personal tics don’t mean Cumberbatch loses sight of the emotions. Turing is not a highly emotive man — he has too many bloody secrets to keep — which means even the smallest facial movement takes on massive meaning.
Turing has a hard time getting along well with others, whether as an adolescent (Alex Lawther, with great sensitivity) being bullied at school, or as a grown man, unable to connect with his colleagues at Bletchley Park. It’s only on the arrival of Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley, utterly charming and believable as a brilliant woman), a fellow mathematician and outsider (“I’m a woman doing a man’s job”), that he starts to find a way into his colleagues’ hearts, thanks to Joan’s warmth and advice. Since all he needed was a woman, it starts to seem like the film thinks that what made Alan remarkable, what made him able to see the big picture and build a machine to crack the code rather than trying to do it by hand like everyone else, is that he was a homosexual without a heteronormative narrative. He wasn’t “normal,” but Joan made him more so. When the film’s infamous line — “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — gets bandied about, it sometimes suggests that no one imagined anything of Alan because of his homosexuality, and not because he’s probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, which has nothing to do with sexual preferences.
I’d hardly be the first person to comment that Alan Turing’s sexuality is a non-entity in the film. A chaste knee-graze and a penned note reading “I love you” in his adolescence are as close as Turing ever gets to exhibiting homosexual desire or feelings. That he doesn’t fancy women is a secret he has to keep, but if we hadn’t been told in a police interrogation in 1951 that he paid a man to touch his penis, we’d have no inkling that he harboured such desires, let alone acted on them. Since the film asks us to feel indignant — and rightly so — that a war hero could be persecuted and chemically castrated for being a homosexual, it’s a problem that the film is so clearly afraid of Turing having any kind of demonstrable sexuality. It also means that Turing’s rejection of Joan, to whom he’d proposed marriage — for practical reasons, to help her out — lacks credibility: a beard is just what he needs, and he genuinely cares for her, so why pretend otherwise?
The film is able to address, if not show or develop, Turing’s homosexuality by using The Imitation Game, Turing’s test for whether you’re dealing with a human or a machine, as a framing device. The film begins with a police interrogation; the police investigator (Rory Kinnear) has read Turing’s work and seems more interested in finding out about that than the gross indecency case at hand. Alan’s testimony becomes the film’s narration, taking us back to Bletchley Park during the war, and then further back to his first adolescent love. Of course, you can’t play Turing’s actual Imitation Game in an empty room with two people, so the framing device falls apart once you see that it’s just a plot device.
The framing device has another advantage: it turns the film into a mystery of sorts. The police investigator thinks Turing is hiding something, perhaps that he’s a foreign spy, and Turing asks us at the beginning, “Are you paying attention?” Tyldum’s camera is always pushing in on a scene or a face, always bringing us closer to the action or to a person, inviting us to solve the puzzle: in effect, trying to give us the same excitement that solving puzzles gave Turing.
The mystery does help us stay engaged, but plot contrivances are constantly threatening to bring the film down. Attempts to dramatize a war-time predicament Turing may find himself in can sometimes feel forced. Just as they crack the code, they realise they now have to pretend as though they haven’t (yet another Imitation Game), keeping it a secret from the Nazis and the Brits so they can determine how best to use the information without being found out: how convenient that someone in that very room will lose a brother as an immediate consequence. The sheer number of times that Turing comes to verbal blows with his superior officer, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), and one of them has to dramatically exit and then re-enter the scene strains believability — not to mention the fact that the local MI6 agent (Mark Strong) is always standing on the sidelines making know-it-all faces, entirely for comedic effect.
But, you know what? Seeing Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, and Keira Knightley radiate charisma, share screen time in this ensemble cast, and butt heads with Benedict Cumberbatch’s “irascible genius,” is pretty much a joy. The actors are far, far better than the material, and by giving them their chance to shine, Tyldum elevates it, too. The Imitation Game is a hugely flawed film, but one I can’t help liking anyway.