Despite eight Oscar nominations The Imitation Game only walked away with one award, Best Adapted Screenplay. To be honest that wasn’t a shock, as quite a few Oscar watchers had thought it would get nothing. And there are also some, including myself, wondering if the one Academy Award it did win was the right one.
The movie tells the story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially awkward, somewhat irascible mathematics prodigy who, after the Second World War breaks out, applies to the government to help break the infamous Enigma code, something many believe is impossible. However he doesn’t want to continue with the traditional method of codebreaking, where smart men use pens, paper and just their brains, as he has an idea to use a machine to break down and then check the billions of possible combinations until it finds the right one. If he can do it, it will allow the Allies to read the German military’s secret communications and possibly win the war.
However this proves difficult for Turing, not because his idea is bad but because many don’t understand what he’s trying to do. The machine is going to cost a fortune (with no guarantee it will work) and it doesn’t help either that he manages to alienate and annoy his colleagues. He does find one ally in the form of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who he manages to get to work at the codebreaking headquarters at Bletchley Park, despite her parents not thinking it’s a suitable place for a lady. Joan is fiercely intelligent and sees something kindred in Alan. While in many ways they would seem made for one another, he is gay (although feels unable to tell her due to the fact homosexuality is illegal).
Surrounding the tale of Turing attempting to crack Enigma with his prototype computer we see Alan’s youth, where he was just as socially awkward at school but forms a close bond with a slightly older boy called Christopher, who becomes his first love. There’s also Alan’s life after the war, where the police are investigating him after someone breaks into his house. While one of the cops thinks he could be a Russian spy, the real reason he doesn’t want the police involved is rather different.
There is much to praise about The Imitation Game and also much to criticise, which is probably why it got reams of award nominations but won relatively few gongs. It looks good, the acting is great – even Keira Knightley, who I normally find as stiff as a board, is extremely good – and it does a tremendous job of making you appreciate what an incredible man Turing was, as well as how horrifically he was treated after the war. Turing almost undoubtedly was key to saving millions of lives and shortening the war, but in the early 50s he was prosecuted for his homosexuality and chemically castrated. He then killed himself at the age of 41, robbing the world of one of the most important minds of the 20th Century.
However, while The Imitation Game makes you think the real Turing was truly brilliant, the movie Turing isn’t quite so impressive. There are a few too many movie touches, which highlight that you’re watching a film and that this isn’t quite real, with much of the issue coming from the fact the movie massages the facts. There’s the constant sensation that you’re being sold something that isn’t quite right – highlighted by the nagging sense that if the men did some of the things they do in the movie, they are far from being as smart as The Imitation Game wants you to think they are.
I have no problem with movies tweaking reality for dramatic effect, but the way The Imitation Game ignores so much of the truth is done in such a way that it doesn’t quite feel real. And it really does ignore massive swathes of the truth, not least that years before the Poles had already broken an earlier, simpler form of Enigma using a complex machine.
While Turing’s work was a massive step forward, the way his Enigma-cracking machine worked, as well as the assumptions it made in order to be able to crack the code, were based on what the Polish had done before the war (while the film calls the machine Christopher, in real-life it was the Bombe, which came from the fact the Poles named their machine Bombas, so even Turing knew his work owed to what had gone before). Sure, it initially sounds more dramatic if one man did it all by himself and won the War, but the truth is both more complex and interesting, and the film can’t quite hide all of it without it being obvious there are missing pieces.
Similarly, it doesn’t even mention Colossus, the machine that really was the first real, modern, programmable computer, which Turing designed and built at Bletchley to crack an even more fiendish code that was used by the German high command. That work probably had even more impact than what he did with Enigma, both in terms of shortening the War and on mankind in general by leading to the computer revolution. However it’s not as well-known or as sexy as Enigma, so in The Imitation Game world it never happened.
The thing many have criticised is that while the film talks about Turing being gay, he’s never seen doing anything gay. Again though, it’s a symptom of the film being tremendous at telling you that Turing’s life was both incredible and yet horrendous, but more problematic when it’s showing you that life.
I did enjoy The Imitation Game, and part of my problem with the movie is that I know that the truth is more complex and interesting that the movie makes it appear. It’s therefore difficult for me to step outside that knowledge and see what I would think if I wasn’t aware that, for example, Turing wasn’t so dim that he built a machine, set it working for months, and only then realised he’d better tell it what to look for (incidentally, what it does end up looking for is essentially the same flaw the Poles used several years before, but which their technology could no longer break after Enigma was massively upgraded). The movie does have power though, and the anger that rises from all involved when it’s dealing with Turing’s treatment after the war is palpable, but it doesn’t quite overcome all the film’s flaws.
Overall Verdict: Simplifying the truth is common in biopics, but the way it’s done in The Imitation Game results in a movie where it often feels you’re not being quite being told the truth. It work brilliantly as testament to the real Alan Turing, but is flawed as a film in its own right.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac