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13 November 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:18pm

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.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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. 

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