Heavy-handed treatment: Benedict Cumberbatch is Alan Turing in The Imitation Game
Show Hide image

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

Pompidou Centre
Show Hide image

Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.