Sometimes, those people written off by society end up doing amazing things. That’s one of the running themes of The Imitation Game, the story about Alan Turing and his ragtag team of cryptologists banded together during World War II to do the impossible: break an unbreakable Nazi spy code and win the war.
Sounds like a simple task. The film may not be as in-depth in regards to the science behind cryptology and some won’t like how little we get of Turing’s personal life, but to me, this is a well done drama all about cracking secrets all while holding onto your own.
The film begins in a prison cell in Manchester, England, 1951. Sitting in this cell is our protagonist and narrator, Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Are you listening, he asks? If you’re not, you may miss things. So no questions during the movie! After all, we’re not in control right now- he is. He knows things. He doesn’t want any judging, either.
But let’s see what led us to this point. We cut back to a point prior to Turing’s imprisonment. Detective Robert Nock, played by Rory Kinnear, of the local police department receives a letter- Alan Turing was just robbed. The only thing is that nothing is actually missing. There’s also the question of why Turing is even in Manchester.
Detective Nock and another officer investigate the home and find Turing sweeping up cyanide. Turing isn’t looking for any help. In fact, he wants to be left alone. When the officers leave, Nock still finds Turing’s behavior suspicious and believes that he’s hiding something.
After that cold opening, the movie starts proper in London, 1939. The country is in the midst of war with Germany. Alan Turing heads to Bletchley’s Radio Manufacturing and meets Commander Alastair Denniston, played by Sir Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance. After the two exchange pleasantries, Denniston looks over Turing’s qualifications: a mathematician from King’s College and became a Cambridge fellow at the age of 24. Turing doesn’t fancy himself as a prodigy, though. Denniston asks why Turing why he would want to work for Bletchley, but it turns out that he doesn’t. Turing is agnostic when it comes to violence and politics is not his expertise. Denniston is miffed. After all, Turing is rejecting a top secret position that many would love to take. It also doesn’t help that Turning doesn’t speak a lick of German. He is good at puzzles, though. As Denniston prepares to dismiss Turing altogether, Turing says one word that catches Denniston’s attention:
Denniston returns to his seat the two discuss Enigma: a top secret program designed to break the German encryption system. If the Allies can break this, they can win the war. Turing knows that Denniston and his team have made little to no progress and they will need his help. He knows how to solve problems. Denniston counters that cracking Enigma is impossible. No, Turing counters, the Allies call it impossible. That’s right. But the British? They can do it, no doubt.
So Denniston brings Turing not just to Enigma, but the rest of the assigned team: Keith, played by Ilan Goodman, Charles, played by Jack Tarlton, and a third member who I’ll get to in a second. The machine itself has been unable to crack the German encryption for one specific reason: the Germans reset the settings to their machines every day, rendering all cracking attempts from the previous day complete pointless. There are millions of possibilities. To be exact, there are 159 million million. This clarification comes from team member and chess extraordinaire Hugh Alexander, played by Matthew Goode.
Alan Turing, however, has no desire whatsoever to be on a team. He thinks the others will just slow him down. He’s already being a team player, you see. MI6 member Stewart Menzies, played by Mark Strong, tells Turing that, in the span of their conversation, three more Brits have died because of Enigma. Right now, the British are not winning the war, but if they can break Enigma, they may have a fighting chance.
So the team sets to work. Given the amount of possibilities, it would take about 20 million years to check these settings. The team hopes to accomplish such a task…in 20 minutes. One day, Hugh and the rest of the team prepare to get some lunch, but Alan is too busy working and isn’t interested in joining them. Also, he’s not interested in sandwiches. Why is Alan so into his work? Well, he has a greater vision for a machine that, when completed, will be able to break every message every day instantly.
Back in Manchester, Detective Nock continues digging into Turing’s background and has found that his military records are classified.
Turing, meanwhile, is furious at Commander Denniston for denying the 100,000 pounds needed for his machine. I mean, it’s a perfectly reasonable amount of money. But Turing has a theory: so far, they have only been using men to try and crack Enigma. This will become more important later. Denniston does not falter. After all, Turing has not won the war and he’s disregarding the chain of command. He’s just one cog in a much larger machine. So Turing asks who Denniston’s boss is. The answer is simple: Winston Churchill.
Like that, with one letter, Turing manages to get Churchill to put him in charge of the team. And Turing’s first order of business is to fire Keith and Charles. Turing must have been very popular in school.
Actually, let’s see just what Turing was like in his youth. The film flashes back to 1928. A much younger Alan Turing, played by Alex Lawther, separates his orange carrots from his green peas. Someone comes buy and dumps food on him, causing his oranges to mix with his greens!
If that wasn’t enough, Turing is then put under the floorboards by some of his peers. He’s soon freed by a friend: Christopher, played by Jack Bannon. Christopher comforts Alan, telling him it’s the people who society writes off that end up doing the most unthinkable things.
Back in the present, Turing now needs a staff to replace Keith and Charles, so he creates a game: a crossword puzzle, to be exact. If you can complete it in less than seven minutes, you move onto the next step. Even as the war continues, various people manage to work on the puzzle.
In the aftermath of a recent bombing, the citizens begin to rebuild. Alan, meanwhile, meets with the select individuals who completed the puzzle in less than seven minutes. The next task is another puzzle. As Alan speaks with the group, another applicant arrives: Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. The checker thinks that Clarke is there for a secretarial position and initially does not believe that she completed the puzzle on her own, but Alan lets her in, all while admonishing her just for being tardy. Clarke takes her seat. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Knightley has appeared on-screen in this film, but we first saw her only in passing, so an introduction there would have been pointless.
Anyway, Clarke proves her worth by managing to complete the task in five minutes, 34 seconds. She’s brought on and briefed on what she and the rest of the team must do to stay on board: lie to their families, if necessary. There’s a chance they could be convicted of high treason and possibly even execution. Clarke isn’t going to be some secretary. She’s going to help break an unbreakable Nazi code and help win the war.
The year is 1940, Bletchley Park. New team member Jack Good, played by James Northcote, arrives, but Ms. Clarke is absent.
We then cut to the Clark residence as Joan finds Alan Turing talking with her parents about what ‘job’ she’ll be doing, all while avoiding the mention of her real objective. He asks Joan why she won’t join. She has the intellect, but despite that, she was never made a fellow. Alan then tells Joan that there are other women in clerical jobs at their site and she would be working with them. It will be quite decorous. Joan wants to know why Alan would even help her, and he repeats Christopher’s words about the people no one imagines anything of that do the things that no one can imagine.
Detective Nock is still trying to crack the mystery that is Alan Turing. It’s as if someone is trying to erase Turing from history. What if he’s a Soviet spy, though?
As war rages on, the team isn’t just at war with Germany, but also with the clock. Germans bombed American aid en route for London. Midnight strikes once again, meaning all progress made is now useless. Team member John Cairncross, played by Allen Leech, feels that their already impossible task is now even more impossible, if that makes any sense. It doesn’t help that Alan is spending all of his time focused on his machine. John rages at Alan. The soldiers on the battlefield are out making differences. The team, by contrast, is getting nothing done. When John threatens to destroy Alan’s machine, he’s stopped. Alan insists that the others let him continue his work. Another team member, Peter Hilton, played by Matthew Beard, is also skeptical, but Alan is adamant that the machine will work.
When the others leave, Alan stuffs some papers in his clothes and heads to Joan’s. She lets him in and he reveals that he brought her some Enigma messages for her to encrypt and decode. We also learn more about Alan’s machine, specifically its name: Christopher. Though Joan has not seen the machine for herself yet, she is familiar with it- a machine that solves problems, makes calculations, and then solves the next one. She read about it in one of Turing’s papers. A digital computer? That will never catch on.
The next day, Alan finds Denniston and a few soldiers at the work station with grim news for the team: the Navy thinks that one of them is a Soviet double agent. Denniston suspects Turing. After all, double agents tend to be lonely and arrogant. The soldiers look through Turing’s files, but find nothing out of the ordinary. Even still, Denniston is still suspicious and tells Turing that he could be hanged for treason. How sweet.
At the pub that night, Joan takes it upon herself to meet the rest of the team. They get along with her instantly. Part of that has to do with her being a woman, but a big part of it has to do with the fact that she’s not an arrogant ass. She tells Alan that the team will not help him if they don’t like him.
So Alan courts the team with…apples, of all things. Well, at least he gave them something healthy. He also has a joke: two people are about to be attacked by a bear. One of them plans to run away. The second person says that the first could never outrun a bear. The first responds that he doesn’t need to outrun a bear- he just needs to outrun the other person. Laugh, damn you! That was a joke!
Yeah, anyway, following a brief flashback of Chris and Alan passing coded messages in class, we return to the present in the year of 1941. Alan and Joan are working on codes, but Hugh may have found a way to quicken the process. Oh, and he takes Alan’s sandwich. Hey, Alan did say he doesn’t like them.
At long last, Alan’s machine is complete and ready to go. The problem is there’s no telling how long it will take for it to decode messages. The team waits and waits while war rages on. The Nazis continue their invasion throughout Europe while the group grows more frustrated.
Finally, Denniston arrives again to see what progress Alan has made. Alan flips out at Denniston for not understanding the magnitude of what he is creating. That said, Denniston is tired of waiting and has one of the soldiers unplug the machine. The funding has ended and Alan is fired.
However, the rest of the team won’t have that. If Alan is gone, so are they, so Alan’s machine better bloody work.
Yes, it better, and that’s where we’ll hold the plot.
Given Turing’s life, there’s a lot of ground to cover with The Imitation Game. Sure, the film does not cover every single aspect that some viewers would like. That would be impossible. This movie isn’t about Turing’s homosexuality, nor is it about the larger conflict at hand. This film is about a group of great minds coming together to do the impossible and tip World War II in favor of the Allied forces.
Director Morten Tyldum puts you square in the time period by looking at how society views those seen as different. We see this play out through Turing as a homosexual, but also Clarke as a woman. As this film takes place during the 1940s, women are viewed as second rate and fit for secretarial positions, while homosexuals are seen as deviants and perverts. If everyone had been accepting of people like Clarke and Turing, the two would have not have had much to prove to themselves. At least, within the context of this film, anyway.
Throughout the film, characters remark that sometimes it’s the people that no one imagines doing anything or written off that end up doing the things that no one can imagine. Though I’m not a fan of how this line is repeated, it does highlight how this ragtag team of mathematicians ended up contributing much to the war effort. At one point, the team acknowledges the fact that they’re not on the frontlines. Soldiers are on the battlefields, giving everything they have and more in order to defeat the Axis Powers. By comparison, the Enigma team is a bunch of heads in a room, away from immediate danger, trying to crack a Nazi spy code. Sure, they still carry the burden of withholding top-secret information from their loved ones and risk both treason and execution if they compromise the mission, but they’re in safer conditions than most soldiers. At the same time, however, this goes hand in hand with the film’s message about great help coming from unlikely sources.
A lot of talk about the war is told through brief scenes and exchanges between characters, Turing’s narration and archival footage. I don’t have as much of an issue with this as some reviewers I’ve read do because, again, the war is not the central focus of the film. I feel that the newsreel footage is there to remind us of the bigger picture and place the main storyline in a larger context. And it’s not just there to say ‘Hey, remember how there’s this war going on?’ We get scenes of citizens going into hiding and dealing with the aftermath when towns are damaged by warfare. So while some have found these scenes distracting and a tad bit unnecessary, I had no problem with them.
I also had no problem with the casting, though given the strength of the actors we have, I wish we’d gotten to see more of them. Alan Turing himself is an outcast by choice, both in his youth and adulthood. Humor goes over his head, he buries himself in his work, a tad bit rude and not really that likable of a guy. The man is all around complicated, yet interesting to watch nonetheless. Benedict Cumberbatch is well cast for this type of role, and if you need further proof of that, watch Sherlock. He can be cold and uncaring, but he doesn’t do it out of spite. He gives Turing enough sympathy where we want to see him realize how much of a cad he’s being and build bridges with his team, even when that just involves giving out apples and telling a bad joke.
Turing is methodical and very much a thinker. He’s always asking questions, but always seems to have an answer for anything, snarky or otherwise. For all of his dry wit, Turing is no moron and pours his heart into his machine, Christopher. After losing his one true friend when he was a young lad, Turing keeps Christopher’s spirit alive in his work. A bit of apparent symbolism there, but at least he never tried to kiss the machine…that we know of, anyway.
Just from the way Cumberbatch plays this role, it’s easy to see that, for being a great mastermind, Turing himself is always hiding something. His secret, of course, being his homosexuality, is buried deep where he hopes no one can find it. It’s the part of him that he does not fully embrace because there are indecency laws in place. Not to mention society wasn’t exactly open to the idea of men paying other men to touch their cocks. I don’t have a problem with the fact that Turing’s homosexuality isn’t center stage or given the attention that many feel it deserves. Yes, it’s what led to his decision to choose chemical castration and, eventually suicide, and it’s unfortunate that such a mention is limited to a footnote in the credits, but this is about the attempt to crack Enigma, not how Turing liked penises instead of vaginas. If you’re looking for the story about the closeted Alan Turing and how he struggled with who he was, this isn’t the movie for you, but then, this movie is about much more than that.
Keira Knightley is good in the role of Joan Clarke, though I wish she had more screen time than she does here. She’s mostly here as the token female of the group and to take on the role as Turing’s love interest. But what material Knightley is given, she plays very well. She’s intelligent, kind, has a way with words, and isn’t about to let herself be defined by society. Clarke grapples with ever-present sexism and is taken for a secretary when she first arrives. Hell, she’s even questioned as to whether she completed Turing’s first task on her own. Again, this was seen as pretty acceptable at the time. But Clarke proves the men of her time wrong by holding her own and proving she has something to contribute to the team. She has enough baggage on her shoulder from not being made a fellow or taken seriously, but she doesn’t use that as an excuse to just hate all men, as some films would have her do. Knightley and Cumberbatch do have very good chemistry together, but I do wish we got to see more of Clarke interacting with the rest of the team.
The rest of the cast is well utilized, but not given a lot to do compared to Cumberbatch and Knightley. Matthew Goode is a good counter to Cumberbatch in that Hugh Alexander isn’t one to let himself get rolled over by Turing’s snark. Charles Dance has a powerful presence as Commander Denniston, but given the man’s work, particularly his tenure as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, the man has proven he can command a scene and be intimidating when necessary.
I do have a few issues with the film. For a movie that’s all about mathematics, science and how computers will soon work, there is not a ton of math or science in the film. I sort of get that. This is a formulaic look at Turing’s life and having too much science or explanation may alienate those unfamiliar with the technical lingo. More than that, too much explanation or expository dialogue would take away from the film being able to simply show instead of tell. However, I think a little bit of dialogue regarding the science behind encryption would have been nice.
This film plays it safe when it comes to ethical dilemmas. We know what is at stake for the team, should they succeed, but they are given a great deal of responsibility. I won’t go into detail, but there’s a scene in the film where the team grapples with trying to save lives, but not let the Germans know that the British are onto them. It’s a good scene that shows how they are, in essence, taking control of life and death, and I wish we had more scenes like that.
The Imitation Game plays it safe. Not playing up Alan Turing’s homosexuality, constant reminders of World War II looming in the background, and not emphasizing the science behind encryption are examples of this movie being streamlined for a general audience as opposed to getting deep into Turing’s life and his work. What we get here is a good movie about a group of brilliant minds who came together to beat the unbeatable Nazi spy code. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance builds off of what we’ve seen him do in Sherlock as he steps into the shoes of another genius. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the atomic bomb or war bonds or guns that won World War II. No. It was won thanks to a bunch of crossword puzzle enthusiasts.
And really, that’s all that matters. I give you World War II: The Untold Story of How the British Won the War.