Heavy-handed treatment: Benedict Cumberbatch is Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
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Computer says no: How has The Imitation Game managed to make Alan Turing’s story so dull?

The way Turing’s story is told is comparable to the montage in Big Brother when Davina McCall told evictees: “Let’s have a look at your best bits.” The Imitation Game is Alan Turing’s best bits.

The Imitation Game (12A)
dir: Morten Tyldum

Biopics that reject the experimental route taken by pictures such as I’m Not There (in which Bob Dylan was played by six actors, including Cate Blanchett) and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (which never showed the pianist’s fingers touching the keys) risk falling into any number of traps. Chief among these is the temptation to explain an entire life using events deemed pivotal by the screenwriter. It’s a method comparable to the montage in each episode of Big Brother when Davina McCall would chirrup to the evicted contestant: “Let’s have a look at your best bits.” The Imitation Game is Alan Turing’s best bits.

The film concentrates largely on the part that Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) played in deciphering communications from the German Enigma machine during the Second World War. But it also reaches back into his schooldays, when he was smitten by an older pupil, Christopher Morcom, who introduced him to the art of cryptology.

“I have a funny feeling you’re going to be rather good at this,” Christopher chuckles. Characters in mediocre films are always foreshadowing events or spelling things out. They can’t help themselves; they were written that way. The police inspector (Rory Kinnear) who visits Turing’s home after a burglary is not much better. With a sense of theatre that should find him plentiful work in pantomime season, he announces: “I think Alan Turing is hiding something.” It seems almost churlish not to have given him a moustache to twiddle.

What Turing is concealing from the police, apart from his homosexuality, is his classified past at Bletchley Park. The team he joins includes a hot-headed chess champion, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and a lone woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). To break Enigma, he assembles a whirring, whizzing “bombe” machine that occupies half a room. This device he names after his childhood love, giving him the chance at last to get his hands on Christopher’s hardware.

Codes are not limited to wartime and soon Turing and Joan are decrypting one another. Turing, who cannot comprehend that his colleagues are inviting him to eat when they announce that they’re off to get some lunch, learns to lie subtly to keep Joan on the team. She appoints herself his unofficial interpreter. “I think that was Alan for ‘thank you’,” she assures the recipient of one heavily disguised compliment.

Cumberbatch and Knightley play out this not-quite-romance adequately enough, but it is in the supporting cast that the richest pickings are found. Matthew Beard, who was the drippy tea-table suitor in An Education, does fine work here as a junior colleague affected personally by one of Turing’s judgement calls. As Stewart Menzies, chief of MI6, Mark Strong provides superfluous but not unwelcome proof that he is still Britain’s driest, most delicious actor. When one of the group protests that there is no such organisation as MI6, Menzies responds with suave delight: “That’s the spirit.” In his most compelling scene he restricts all movement to the methodical rotation of a cigarette lighter in the palm of one hand.

Performers can be as nuanced as they like but they can’t control acts of sabotage wreaked on the material once their work is in the can. Blame for the clunkiness of The Imitation Game could be laid at any number of feet, including those of the Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum (Headhunters). Nor should the influence of Harvey Weinstein, whose company is releasing the picture, be discounted. To say that the film exhibits the Weinstein “touch” would be inaccurate. These are blows, not touches, pawprints rather than fingerprints.

Most of the scenes have the grammar of a trailer or recap: Joan looking up from her tea to see an amputee soldier hobbling past, reminding her at a crucial moment what her efforts are for, or Turing’s frantic scribbling intercut with shots of him sprinting (brain-work is so uncinematic, don’t you find?). The film has been shaped so that a person could wander into the cinema halfway through and still pick up the thread, which explains why the same line (“Sometimes it’s the very people no one can imagine doing anything who do things no one can imagine”) is repeated three times.

A substandard biopic falls fairly low in the catalogue of crimes against a man who committed suicide after accepting chemical castration as an alternative to imprisonment for homosexuality. Even so, Turing deserves better than to be presented as a nutty professor, a tweed-jacketed Rain Man, his own code so easily cracked that any old hack film-makers can have a go. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge