This holiday season’s biopic, The Imitation Game, gives a good overview of the lives of one of the 20th century’s most interesting people, Alan Turing. Turing was a computer scientist and mathematician, computer inventor and pretty much the man who single-handedly broke the German Enigma Machine during World War II. He worked at Bletchley Park, Britain’s code-breaking center. He was fascinated by the idea of machine intelligence and we have named a “test” for machine intelligence after him. What he called The Imitation Game, we call the Turing Test.
The Imitation Game follows three distinct timelines; 1951/52 in Manchester, England, where reclusive college professor Alan Turing’s house has been burglarized; 1941, when a brilliant an abrasive young Turing comes to work at Bletchley Park; and the late 1920s, with a young Turing going away to boarding school and coming face-to-face with cruelty, mob mentality and first love.
The film sets each of these timelines in geographically and physically distinct locations so that it is not hard to make the shift, with the film, between the 1940s and the 1950s. This might have been hard otherwise with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Turing in both timelines (a younger actor does a fine job in the boarding school section). As good as Cumberbatch was, there were several times I felt I was watching him give a performance, not watching Alan Turing. There were other occasions, though, where I felt that the character of Turing informed Cumberbatch completely, and those scenes were depicted mostly with body language; the way he picked up a cup, or the set of his shoulders.
While the movie clearly compressed and dramatized, I loved the section that dealt with Britain’s attempt at breaking the Enigma codes. Once they have found a way to decipher the messages, the war becomes a war of intelligence. In a scene that has to be dramatic license, the code-breakers themselves struggle with the cruel calculus of war; if they notify a convoy of an impending German attack, the Germans will suspect their machine has been compromised and they will make design changes. If the code-breakers keep silent, hundred of civilians will die, but they will be able to use their machine to say thousands more. The scene is sentimental but powerful.
I thought the choice of the writers and director to play Turing as a person somewhere on the autistic spectrum (as well as having OCD), instead of just being a man who is brilliant and abrasive was taking it a bit too easy on the audience. Turing fell somewhere between Sherlock in Sherlock and Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. You don’t need to talk down to us, and it did feel that way at times. Turing’s sexual orientation is a major issue in the 1950s timeline, where he was convicted of “gross indecency.” Here, I felt that Cumberbatch delivered, explaining haltingly that he chose “chemical castration” (estrogen injections) rather than prison because he could not complete his work in prison.
Keira Knightley plays Joan Clark, a mathematician who comes to Bletchley and becomes friends with Turing. Unlike with Cumberbatch, I thought Knightley was convincing throughout as this woman who is not only brilliant but smart.
The movie is beautiful and filled with lots of well-known British actors doing there usual excellent jobs. I liked the film and it made me want to go out and get the book it’s based on. From me, that’s high praise. So far, it’s the best mathematics film of 2015.