Imitation of Life

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game, 2014, color, sound, 114 minutes.

BEFORE I SAW THE IMITATION GAME all I knew about Alan Turing was that President Obama, making a speech in England in 2012, named him as one of the three greatest British scientists, the others being Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and that the following year the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon for the crime of indecency. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Turing in the film, remarked that it should have been left to Turing whether or not he wanted to pardon the British government. But of course he’d been dead since 1954.

Knowing little or nothing about Turing is the prerequisite for enjoying The Imitation Game, which thanks to the marketing savvy and big-bucks commitment of The Weinstein Company and the presence of Cumberbatch, the New Man sex symbol, is now having a wildly successful run in art-house cinemas. Weinstein is pulling out all the stops in the advertising campaign for his potential Oscar winner; the cost for the print ads alone probably equals the budgets of most independent films heading to Sundance this week. The early ads were filled with film-critic quotes praising the movie’s art and entertainment values. This was followed by an extravagant double-page ad in the Sunday, January 4 New York Times with Cumberbatch in profile on the right-hand page and a series of quotes from various Internet honchos testifying to Turing’s visionary genius as the inventor of a universal machine that is the basis of all contemporary computing. Three days later, the advertising narrative changed course and the film became the story of a gay man persecuted by a homophobic society, now restored to his place in history by The Imitation Game.

If the film does nothing else but send you, as it did me, to Alan Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983, newly prefaced in the 2014 Princeton University Press edition) it more than justifies its existence. A great read, Hodges’s intellectual biography depicts Turing as a brilliant mathematician; a crucial pioneering figure in the theorization and engineering of digital computing; and the biggest brain in Bletchley Park’s Hut #8, the unit in Britain’s World War II intelligence hub that succeeded in breaking the German’s Enigma code, thus shortening the war by as much as two years and saving as many as twenty-million lives.

That Turing, despite these accomplishments, was as little known as Ada Lovelace (look her up yourself) until the release of The Imitation Game is partly because every one of the nine thousand persons who worked at Bletchley Park during the war had to take a nondisclosure oath under penalty of high treason. (The cover story was that Bletchley was a radio factory.) The other, more appalling reason is that in 1952 Turing was convicted of engaging in homosexual acts, for which he was sentenced to chemical castration (the option he preferred to two years in prison). As a result not only were his brain and body messed up by high dosages of estrogen, he also was barred from the government funding he needed to continue his life’s work on artificial intelligence. His death, just a few days before his forty-second birthday, from arsenic poisoning was most likely a suicide although possibly an accident or even an assassination.

Indifferently directed by Morten Tyldum with a thin, clichéd, sentimental script by Graham Moore, The Imitation Game is nevertheless something of a pleasure, purely because the actors rise above the material, bringing to their characters their own knowledge of the complex actual persons they play on screen. The narrative is largely set at Bletchley during the war and is structured as a conventional heroic race against time, with our hero overcoming not only the formidable adversary of the Nazi’s “Enigma” machine but also all the disbelievers at Bletchley who think his “Bombe” decoding machine will never work.

There are occasional flashbacks to the barely adolescent Turing (Alex Lawther) at boarding school where he falls in love with the other math whizz in his class, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). The young actors are wonderful (Tyldum has to be given credit for directing them) and there is no doubt that Turing was shaped by the loss of Morcom, who died suddenly of tuberculosis. His passion for cryptography and his understanding that all language is coded may well have been shaped by that early forbidden love even before his involvement with linguistic philosophy and logical positivism at Cambridge. The coded messages he exchanged with Christopher were written in the language of the closet. But there is no evidence that Turing named his intelligent machine “Christopher,” as he does in the film. That’s the scriptwriter’s fantasy and it well may bring tears to your eyes (it did mine) until you realize how it sentimentalizes Turing, who, more complicatedly, like Warhol sometimes wished he was a machine and probably preferred the company of his universal machine to any of his many lovers, whether casual or serious. That there is no sign of any of these lovers in the film is its gravest failing

Except, of course, for the absurd 1952 to 1954 framing story, in which Turing tells his life story to a deus-ex-machina, a completely fictional police detective (Rory Kinnear), whose unfounded suspicion that Turing is a Soviet spy leads to his arrest for having a piece of rough trade in his apartment. In actuality, Turing did not deny the charge, believing that homosexuality was about to be legalized. Even in this he was ahead of his time. The story that he tells the detective is the story that unfolds in the film; thus, in its entirety, The Imitation Game is a first-person narrative. What is preposterous about this ploy is that had Turing told the detective what he did at Bletchley, he would have been guilty of a crime more serious than homosexuality. He would have committed high treason for violating the Official Secrets Act.

As much as I wanted to suspend my disbelief and take pleasure in the actors’ brilliance, The Imitation Game lacks credibility on every level. Still, Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (the woman whose mathematical genius made her part of Turing’s inner circle and, for a moment, his fiancée), and, as a composite character representing the all-powerful MI6, Mark Strong (no one leans against door frames as compellingly as he does) are terrific. It’s Cumberbatch, however, who has the burden of making us care about Turing, thus keeping us riveted on this perfectly silly film to the end. He succeeds because he is a great actor and, at the moment, a star. I can only wish him better scripts in the future. Such as Hamlet, in which he opens at London’s Barbican in August. Don’t try to buy tickets. The ten-week run sold out online in an hour.