The Imitation Game (2014): The Tragedy of Turing

The life of Alan Turing is one of the most remarkable stories of the 20th Century. He should be taught in schools and his name should be known throughout the land as a true wartime hero. Yet he remains obscure. Through a combination of the British Government and the loyalty of those who served at Bletchley Park: Enigma, and Turing remained a closely guarded secret for decades. Turing’s story is one that is inspiring, tragic, and deeply British: but in this instance, that phrase is used as both a positive and truly negative connotation.

The film itself is very well made and tastefully impresses upon the audience the sheer scale of the problem that was Enigma. For history geeks and those who like to find fault with anything, don’t get upset about the imbalance the film places on the influence of cracking Enigma and its military use as Ultra. To give a true account of this would be exceedingly difficult and would detract from the true purpose of the film. See it as a platform which will help bring Alan Turing back to the forefront of popular consciousness, and then inspire a fuller understanding of all the ins-and-outs of the hugely complex “information war”.

The Imitation Game is not a documentary, and it does not get bogged down in science, or even the war. These aspects are shown in glimpses and snapshots: you know it was in the background and obviously of the utmost importance; but at the same time you are detached, other than for a few poignant scenes. This is what it would have been like at Bletchley Park.

It is a human story. This is not a film for those irritating people, who think they are historians the instant they’ve read something in a book or online, and immediately flock to the nearest shop to buy a tweed jacket with elbow patches; nor is it for bedraggled bores that stand around looking at computers and machinery all day. It is to spread the story of Alan Turing and his code-breaking team as widely as possible.

This may seem obvious, as he is one of the most popular actors on the planet right now, but the broad appeal of the film is one of the reasons why casting Benedict Cumberbatch is so important. The Cumberbitches will come flocking and he will draw in a percentage of the audience who were otherwise unlikely to see this film. The only question which remained was could Benny C successfully lead? This has now been unequivocally dismissed. Cumberbatch is fantastic: to the point where it might be his best performance to date. He does not overplay Turing’s character, and brings a completely different approach to that of Sherlock. With the lack of information on Alan Turing, it would have been easy to play him as this type of genius; but Turing is a more complex character, with greater personal conflict. I love Sherlock: but it is no criticism to say that I was grateful not to be reminded of him during this film. Cumberbatch is controlled, impressive, and truly convincing.

Now admittedly, I haven’t seen Keira Knightly in the films for which she has received critical acclaim: my favourite performances of hers so far have been in Bend It Like Beckham, and Love Actually. But I have seen her in Pirates of the Caribbean: so I was a bit nervous. Thankfully though, it was not Elizabeth Swan that we are greeted with, but a very commendable performance as Joan Clarke. She plays the part convincingly, is not there to be just a pretty face, and successfully dispels any preconceived scepticism.

The role of Joan is a crucial one and I liked that the final scene is only her and Alan. Some may be surprised by the lack of attention given to Turing’s later life, but for me this was ok. It was not a biopic on the man himself, but a flavour of the main events which shaped his life. If his story was one which was well-known then greater depth would have been important. But, as it is not, it largely focuses on his wartime efforts, with a smattering of youth and later life intertwined. And other than people’s preference for how they wish some aspects to be portrayed, the ending is moving, and Turing’s suicide is handled tastefully.

And then as the film draws to a close it leaves an appropriate, bitter aftertaste.

Written in text across the screen, the audience is informed how tens of thousands of homosexuals have been prosecuted in Britain, and that Alan Turing was pardoned for this “offence” by the British Government in 2013.

In other words: Sorry for prosecuting you all those years ago and the whole chemical castration thing; but now everyone knows how important you were, we’ll let you off the hook. But only you.

So not only did the state act deplorably toward Alan Turing during his own lifetime, but they then later blight his memory with an incredibly inappropriate Royal pardon. Turing should have been pardoned because the crime he was prosecuted for was unjust: not because of his contributions toward code-breaking and modern computing. I can’t imagine that many would react favourably to such a hollow gesture. I don’t care if she is the Queen, her pardon was distasteful and utterly meaningless. Though through no fault of her own, she has spread the message that it was only acceptable to have been homosexual, if you were a person of significance. It is remarkable what little progress has been made on these issues. All those prosecuted should be pardoned and Turing should be recognised and honoured specifically for his achievements.

The story of Alan Turing is therefore one of great personal conflict. It is testament to Turing that despite being treated this way, by the very Establishment that he played a significant role in saving, that he still kept one of its greatest secrets: that of Bletchley Park, Enigma, and himself. He is the unsung, underdog: the quintessential British hero who went quietly about his business. If only we could be as proud of the Britain he served so commendably.

The Imitation Game may not be entirely accurate historically, but its message is spot on: that a mere pardon is clearly insufficient, and that Alan Turing is a name worthy of study, remembrance and celebration.

4 thoughts on “The Imitation Game (2014): The Tragedy of Turing

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