The Imitation Game has provoked strong views about cinema. The film is doing excellent business, mainly with older audiences. But it has also been the subject of attacks about historical accuracy and ‘authenticity’ some of which are misguided because those making the attacks don’t understand film culture all that well.
The screening I attended was quite busy for a Saturday night with an audience mainly over 50 who seemed to enjoy it. The older audience is not a surprise given the subject matter about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in World War II. The central focus is on Alan Turing and the film’s title is taken from the name given by Turing to the exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and how to define it. The two factors which mean that the film differs considerably from the Michael Apted thriller Enigma (UK 2001), set around the same historical events, are that Turing was a singular mathematician and a gay man in the 1940s when homosexuality was illegal – and the character is played by the star du jour, Benedict Cumberbatch. Given the strong box office there must be plenty of the younger Cumberbatch fans (some of whom are female fans known by the unflattering description ‘Cumberbitches’) who have turned up to see an extraordinary performance.
The attacks on the film – apart from a few clueless media reviewers who don’t understand why the film works – are represented by online pieces like the Alex von Tunzelmann one in the Guardian entitled ‘Inventing a new slander to insult Alan Turing’. At the time of writing this had attracted 745 comments. The ‘new slander’ inserted into the script sees Turing not reporting a Soviet spy in the codebreaking team because he fears exposure as a gay man and the spy knows this. This is the only real charge against the script – the other changes to the historical record are not so important given the difficulty of condensing a long story into a film under two hours. (This length issue too has been challenged since Harvey Weinstein’s talons are around the film for a US release and he has a track record of trying to cut European and Asian films that he acquires.) There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘Alan Turing story’ would need a ten part TV serial to cover all the ground in sufficient detail. There have been several films and TV fictions as well as documentary programmes which have covered the code-breaking activities during the war but this is the one that will reach the widest audience – the audience which before the film will know little or nothing about Alan Turing. And for that reason I think its historical ‘conveniences’ are excusable.
The ‘Soviet spy’ incident (which as far as I know is completely fictitious – although the historical character who was subsequently suspected of spying did work at Bletchley he didn’t work with Turing)) is interesting but I don’t want to spoil the film’s narrative by analysing how the plot works. What I can note is that the film focuses on three crucial periods in Turing’s life, as a public schoolboy of 16 in 1928, as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park from 1939 to 45 and as a gay man in 1952 accidentally caught up in a police investigation. The Russians aren’t mentioned in 1928 (although Turing did want to go to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and he did go to Germany) but by 1942 they were British allies, so spying activities were part of the complex power struggles between the allies over the conduct of the war. In 1952 the ‘Cambridge spies’ Burgess and Maclean had made headlines by ‘disappearing’ and their stories would become part of the Cold War debates about spies, double agents etc. over the next thirty years. The history of interest in the Soviet Union and Marxist political thought at Cambridge in particular during the 1930s is an important context for Turing’s own development but the film narrative doesn’t have time to explain this fully. (The Cambridge spies were also associated with a gay community in the university.)
The best compliment I can give the filmmakers is to say that after the screening I rushed home to find my copy of Andrew Hodges’ book, a detailed biography by a gay mathematician about a fascinating Englishman and his tragic death. Alan Turing the Enigma of Intelligence in its 1983 edition is over 500 pages of very small print with a huge reference section. It’s a phenomenal piece of writing and has deservedly been re-published. The author’s website has all the relevant publishing details.
The film’s script by Graham Moore is based on Hodges’ book and it’s one of the two main American contributions to the production (the other is editor William Goldenberg) – which is a truly global affair with a Norwegian director (Morten Tyldum), a Spanish DoP (Oscar Faura) and a French musical composer (Alexandre Desplat). British production designer Maria Djurkovic describes her work on the film in a BFI interview and, of course, the cast is British. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing very well – but then it’s almost like a Ken Loach casting decision, he fits the part so well in terms of background. The rest of the cast is good too and in terms of entertainment value, Charles Dance as the bone-headed naval officer in charge at Bletchley and Mark Strong as the MI6 man are priceless. Keira Knightley often seems to get criticised but she is actually a hardworking actor who takes a diverse range of roles and she’s very good here. Praise too is needed for the boys who play the younger Turing and his schoolfriend.
I was surprised that I enjoyed the film so much. I thought the narrative was well-constructed, moving smoothly so that there isn’t really time to think about the historical inaccuracies. My only criticism about the production is that the inauthentic shots of the railways aren’t needed and the presumably quite expensive shots of bomb-damaged London streets could be represented by newsreel footage playing in a cinema. The film is quite conventional overall and that helps it to reach a wide audience. But it also made two good points about wartime Britain and the concept of total war, i.e. the idea that everyone is involved in the war effort. In terms of Bletchley Park this meant that all the brightest mathematicians and cryptanalysts were brought together (though I suspect that the film underplays the important roles of the women in this operation) but that the young men must have faced a great deal of public criticism as they were not in uniform and seemed not be doing anything for the war effort at all (because it was all secret).
So, the story is being told about the wartime work. But the last episode about Turing in Manchester in the early 1950s is not really adequate – either about Turing as a gay man or about what he was doing in terms of artificial intelligence. The title of the film does refer to both the ‘Turing test’ and to the fact that Turing himself had to imitate a heterosexual man throughout his life, at least in public. Perhaps we can have another film about Turing in the post-war world?