Whilst films set during WW2 generally focus on the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime across Europe or the stories of triumph and heroism that emerged amidst such subjugation, it is always interesting to take a look at the other side of the conflict and acknowledge that the actions of the allies certainly wasn’t always above reproach, even when it came to the way they treated their own. As such, The Imitation Game explores the work of Alan Turing, his profound influence on the outcome of the war and the appalling way in which he was subsequently treated by the British military and intelligence agencies who benefitted so much from his efforts. Although most certainly not a soldier, Turing was responsible for the development of technology that ultimately enabled the Allies to seize control of the conflict and bring the war to an end. The reward for his efforts? Being kicked to the kerb by the authorities and ultimately dying prematurely without any formal recognition for his work.
Turing is a maths genius recruited by the military and secret service to decrypt the Enigma code used by the Nazis to transmit communications. The unravelling of this code was absolutely critical in being able to halt the Nazi insurgences throughout Europe and was regarded as unbreakable. Of course Turing – played by Benedict Cumberbatch – has a personality that is not particularly compatible with the military hierarchy in that he has little regard for anybody who does not, or simply cannot, understand what he is trying to achieve. Rank, protocol and precedence are of little interest to him. Initially presenting as an insular, tactless and seemingly arrogant individual, Turing infuriates most of those with whom he works, including Commander Dennison (Charles Dance) the commanding officer of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, the facility where the work was carried out. However, it is to the great credit of Cumberbatch that Turing ultimately emerges as a very likeable, sympathetic character. In fact, the casting is perfect and it is hard to imagine anybody else playing Turing.
The film opens with Turing’s arrest in the 1950’s and alternates between three eras; the events immediately before and after the arrest, his unhappy boarding school days and, of course, the wartime triumph that is by far the most interesting of the three narrative threads. Immediately upon arriving at Bletchley Park, Turing antagonises everybody he meets, including his notional superior Hugh Alexander (Mathew Goode), and immediately isolates himself from those he considers intellectually inferior. In fact, he sets out to recruit a new team, which leads to the development of a deep friendship with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) that results in the two becoming engaged; a strategic alliance rather than one based on love given the fact that Turing was unambiguously gay. This friendship is beautifully articulated by the two performers, with Knightley again showing what she can do when given a good role.
The story of the Enigma codebreaking is fascinating and surprisingly suspenseful. A common theme throughout the film is the necessity of sacrifice in the interests of success. Whether it be soldiers and civilians being killed in attacks that could have been prevented simply to ensure that the Nazi party remains unaware the Allies have successfully decrypted Enigma, or whether it be the personal sacrifices made by those engaged in this top secret project. Of course, Turing paid the ultimate price for his notoriety. Convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952 simply because he was homosexual, Turing was forced to undergo chemical castration in lieu of a prison sentence and his death in 1954 was ruled a suicide.
The battle scenes are not particularly convincing and it seems unlikely that MI6 head Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), would really have spent so much time lolling about Bletchley Park doing very little of any consequence. Furthermore, the Soviet spy sub-plot is a little clichéd and doesn’t really add much to what is already an engaging enough story about a fascinating character. However, Cumberbatch’s perfectly pitched performance lifts The Imitation Game above its flaws, with Knightley very solid in support. Yes, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology in1989 for the way in which Turing was treated and the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013, but it really was too little too late for a man whose efforts brought an early end to a war that may have otherwise continued for years to come.