The winter film season will be dominated by the scientist biopic. This Friday sees the release of the much anticipated film about Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and just after Christmas Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking – The Theory of Everything – is released. Both have appeared at recent Film Festivals and for what it’s worth at this point in the year their leading actors are generating Oscar buzz. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to secure a seat for The Imitation Game at the London Film Festival last month, the BFI offered an early preview and will do the same for The Theory of Everything on 8th December (tickets go on public sale on 11th November).
The Imitation Game shows three periods in Alan Turing’s life; primarily it focuses on his work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War breaking codes using his invented machine, but also travels backwards in time to his schooldays to show the foundation of his interest in cyphers and close friendship with another boy, and we go forward to 1951 when a suspicious robbery at Turing’s house leads to his arrest for gross indecency and an horrific sentence of hormone therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. This is largely a very good and terribly British film, its nationality seeping through every second of the picture. No one presents the war on screen in that way except the British film industry – slightly cosy with everyone cycling down cobbled streets with lovely hairdos.
It’s also relatively low budget (qualifying it for inclusion in the British Independent Film Awards), which is noticeable in the few action scene; bombs dropping over England and a few sorry-looking tanks are all you get. The rest of the war is represented using archive footage from newsreels to give the audience some context – a classic ‘we have no money for war scenes’ technique. Every bit of that tiny budget has however been spent on a bundle of lovely tank tops and cardigans for that authentic 1940s flavour.
I don’t know why I’m being mean, I actually really enjoyed this film and its focus on the quite difficult human interaction between Turing and his team. This character-driven approach is something British films do so well and the cast includes some of our best theatre actors. As the film opens, Rory Kinnear, an Iago worth rooting for at the National last year, is the 1950s Manchester bobby who investigates Turing’s past only to find empty files and begins to suspect he may have been a spy in the war. Back we go to 1941 and see Turing’s team at work – well we don’t see them work, just stand around in those nice tank tops – trying to break the German Enigma code. Initially the team is led by chess genius Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who oozes professional resentment, while his hostility to Turing’s odd manner almost gets our hero sacked. Goode makes him likeable though; good looking, charismatic, suave and a hit with the ladies – so not like any mathematician I’ve ever met.
Another theatrical luminary, Mark Strong, plays the head of MI6. Fresh from his breath-taking performance as Eddie Carbone in this year’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, Strong has a relatively small but memorable role as the spymaster as keen to deceive his own government as the enemy. Charles Dance is also on scary form as Commander Denniston who reluctantly recruits Turing and then spends the rest of the film trying to fire him. Dance is in Tywin Lannister mode so is threateningly good value.
Cumberbatch is the heart of this film and it is surprising to think that he’s hardly headlined a movie before. He’s been the villain and had major supporting roles but in film his leading man experience is slight. On TV and in the theatre however it is extensive including major stage roles in Frankenstein (2011) and a pre-Sherlock (and therefore pre-hysterical fame) After the Dance at the National in 2010 in which he was marvellous. There is no question of course that he easily carries this film with a complex and somewhat emotional portrayal of Turing. He’s not depicted as an inevitable hero, at times he’s not very nice at all and seems to have difficulty with social convention, although his very literal approach is successfully used for comic effect throughout. It’s a very interesting performance which is both confident and fragile at the same time, becoming particularly affecting during his hormone treatment in the 50s. Comparisons with Sherlock are sadly everywhere given both characters have traits in common, but it’s misleading to suggest the performances are anything alike and at no point do you feel you’re watching Sherlock in World War II – Cumberbatch is far too good an actor to fall into that trap and the emotional elements of his Turing make it quite distinct.
Comparisons are perhaps more appropriate with Enigma, the Robert Harris thriller with Dougray Scott from 2002. Jeremy Northam’s fantastic chief spy aside, The Imitation Game is a far better representation of Bletchley Park, which without the melodramatic spy hunt and silly love story, gives a more nuanced insight into the consequence of the code-breakers achievement. Far from the simplistic idea of breaking Enigma winning the war, instead we see that they can’t really use it or the Germans will cotton-on and change the whole thing. For 2 years then, they had to carefully select which attacks they would prevent whilst allowing men to die every day elsewhere, and all to protect their ability to read German messages. Even when the war ended the world still needed to believe that Enigma hadn’t been broken so Britain would have the advantage should it be used in another war. It’s a fascinating aspect of this film and one that throws up many questions about the morality and ambiguity of conflict strategy.
The film isn’t perfect however, and in addition to the cosiness I mentioned earlier, there’s also a missed opportunity with John Cairncross a member of Hut 8 whose full name is barely mentioned until the end. Cairncross was allegedly the fifth man in the famous Cambridge Five spy ring that throughout the war betrayed secrets to Russia. Although he was not close to Burgess, Blunt, Philby and MacClean their betrayal is still infamous today, so Cairncross’s appearance is rather underplayed in this film. I could also have done without the childhood flashbacks, although well-acted, they just seemed a bit cliché and only serve to tell us that Turing was always good at crosswords and socially on the edge. You might also notice that I haven’t mentioned Keira Knightley…well she just does her best Keira Knightley impression so your enjoyment of her performance depends on how you feel about that.
This film is going to be popular if only for its lead actor’s current appeal, so come Friday the cinemas will be packed with people desperate to see it, and they won’t be too disappointed. It may not take any risks in its intellectual presentation of the war years, but looking at Turing’s achievements from the perspective of his shocking treatment later is one that gives you plenty to think about. It also offers a more complex idea of what war means that many such films, when doing the right thing and making the right decision are by no means the same. Although it is packed with star performances, it is very much Cumberbatch’s film, setting a high bar for the first of this winter’s scientist biopics. We’ll see in a few weeks whether Redmayne can match him.
The Imitation Game was previewed at the BFI Southbank and London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on Friday 14 November.