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The Imitation Game – Breaking the Code

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The Imitation Game, if nothing else, confirms the enormous talent of the British actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. Not only is he a compelling performer but someone who convincingly transforms himself in every role.

Cumberbatch fans, for example, who are hooked on him as the fast-talking, imperious Sherlock Holmes, will not find that man in this film. In The Imitation Game (not a great title), he plays Alan Turing, the brilliant English mathematician who invented the first computer and, using it, helped to break the German Enigma code which, in turn, helped the Allies win World War II.

In this British-American production, based on the biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, Cumberbatch is utterly convincing as an awkward genius, someone on the autistic spectrum, who speaks with a stammer and, as his mother calls him, “an odd fish.” He is the butt of bullies at boarding school (there is a disturbing scene that shows it), and misunderstood by most of his peers., except for one, Christopher, who befriends him, but dies young. By the time we meet him as a grown man at top-secret Bletchley Park – where all the code breakers are housed — Turning possesses the intellectual arrogance of a genius, one who is vulnerable but used to being detested by almost everyone. It’s a complex and difficult role to pull off and Cumberbatch does it brilliantly.


He is well supported by a roster of outstanding English actors who are part of his team of code breakers. They include Keira Knightley, as fellow mathematical genius, Joan Clarke, as well as handsome-rake, Mathew Goode, and a familiar face from Downton Abbey, Allen Leech, playing a surprising role. How the team is formed, and how they grow to respect Turing is, for me, the best and most gripping part of the film.

The Germans changed their naval codes every day, which is what prompts Turing to devise his electro-mechanical machine. At first, it does not work properly, and how the team works out the kinks – under the threat of being fired – takes up most of the rest of the film. Because it’s virtually impossible to show an intellectual problem being solved, the director throws in footage of the London blitz, of German submarines bombing English ships, all of which we’ve seen before in dozens of other films. For me, these scenes do not add to the nail-biting suspense of the film, but are filler that drag the narrative down.

There are two major stories in this bio-pic. The first is heroic and suspenseful: creating the team and machine that beats Enigma. The second is heartbreaking: Turing’s homosexuality, post-war conviction of “gross indecency,” and ultimate suicide. Here, the film – clearly appealing to a mass audience – pulls its punches. Though, like the movie, Pride, it champions being gay, it does so, ironically enough, by downplaying Turing’s homosexuality.

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This is perfectly obvious to those of us who were fortunate enough to see the brilliant 1996 BBC film on the exact same subject, Breaking the Code, staring Derek Jacobi as Turing. One of the first scenes in that film shows an aging, stuttering Turing inviting the young hustler who will eventually cause his ruin, into his apartment. In The Imitation Game, on the other hand, we never see Turing as an active homosexual. Instead, we see Turing becoming engaged to Joan Clarke before revealing his homosexuality and breaking it off. Though well done, it’s pure Hollywood.

Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game both open and close in a police station where Turing is being questioned about the break-in to his apartment. So it’s hard not to compare the two, and to note that Breaking the Code is far grittier.

Another point of departure between the two is that Cumberbatch plays Turing as autistic, but Jacobi does not. Cumberbatch’s Turing is not simply gay but “abnormal,” and a great deal of emphasis is placed on celebrating his abnormality. “I don’t care what’s normal,” says Cumberbatch to Knightley. To which she responds, “The world is an infinitely better place because you aren’t.”

EnigmaAutism is clearly coming out of the closet in a way that homosexuality already has. Since I haven’t read the biography upon which both films are based I have no idea whether Turing was, in fact, on the autism spectrum, but it is certainly plausible, given his savant-like mathematical skills, and because it has become almost a cliché to say that half of Silicon Valley is on the spectrum.

Word-of-mouth on The Imitation Game, and on the Film Festival circuit has been extremely positive, and it’s already being touted for a great many awards. Cumberbatch definitely deserves one for his nuanced and touching performance. The film itself, less so. That said, for those who know nothing about Alan Turing and his tragic life (redeemed when he was posthumously “pardoned” by Queen Elizabeth in 2013), the film about an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary time, is well-acted, moving, and well worth seeing. For serious cineastes, take a look at Breaking The Code on You Tube, and decide for yourselves which version you prefer.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum with a screenplay by Graham Moore, will open in New York and Los Angeles on November 28. 2014.


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