Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Imitation Game

Further to the post That is All You Need to Know, we just went to see The Imitation Game, the historical thriller based on Alan Turing's central role in the cracking of the German Enigma code in World War 2.

Previous movie offerings on this subject have been disappointing, if not objectionable. The 2000 U-571 conflates the stories of the U-boats U110 and U-559 into a piece of revisionist fiction portraying Americans as capturing a German naval Enigma machine (the reality was that it was the Royal Navy). The 2001 Enigma, while very watchable, is a rather routine wartime thriller in which a geeky couple at Bletchley Park (the man, Tom Jericho, with a Turing-like history hinted at) get involved in a Famous Five style puzzle-solving adventure involving Jericho's missing ex-lover, Nazi spying, the security services, and a cover-up of an atrocity.

The Imitation Game is of an entirely different calibre. It takes its name from Alan Turing's 'Imitation Game Test' (whose aim is for an interrogator to decide if another party is human or a computer), and refers to the film's framing device, in which Turing poses a similar question to the police interviewer: is he a hero or a criminal?

I had a horrible fear that Benedict Cumberbatch would just play a "Sherlock" Turing, given that previous role as an Asperger-y genius. But this was unfounded; it was a sensitive and nuanced performance, backed up by strong performances all round: notably Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Mark Strong as Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (played as a sinister but oddly sympathetic MI6 heavy), Charles Dance as Cdr. Alastair Denniston, and Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock (a Manchester policeman who thinks he has found a spy, but then realises he has stumbled on to something far more complex).

On the historical and technical detail, The Imitation Game was very good, given the limitations on what a general audience can take with an abstruse subject like code-breaking. This predictably leads to 'single breakthrough' moments, and a tendency to crank up situations into confrontation and conflict, such as Joan Clarke slapping Turing, a fist-fight among the codebreakers, and military police bursting into Turing's workshop. Other aspects seemed a little contrived, particularly the idea that only Turing would spot an issue that has probably been known to codebreakers for centuries: that once Enigma was cracked, the knowledge couldn't be used indiscriminately without giving away to the Germans that the code was insecure (an issue leading to one of the moral dilemmas the film tackles).

But those are quibbles. This is an excellent film, and I recommend it virtually without reservation.

- Ray

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