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An enigma becomes a banality

An unfortunately facile Alan Turing biopic

Nicholas Barber | November 13th 2014

Early on in “The Imitation Game”, a new drama about Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers, Turing tells his superior officer, Commander Denniston, that he has a plan to outsmart the Germans’ Enigma machine. However, he adds, it’s too technical for a layman to understand. When Denniston (Charles Dance) presses him, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) explains that a person can’t beat Enigma: it will take a machine to defeat the machine. “That doesn’t sound very technical,” bristles Denniston. And he’s quite right. It doesn’t. Despite being a film about a clever, complicated man doing clever, complicated things, “The Imitation Game” is simplified to the point of banality, as if its producers were terrified of confusing the audience for a single moment.

It’s chock-full of dialogue clarifying exactly what’s happening and what it all means, and captions informing us where we are: “Manchester, England” says one of them, which raises the question of whether American films ever say “Boston, USA”. Anyway, it’s in Manchester, England, that Turing is arrested and charged with gross indecency (ie, being homosexual) in 1951. A police detective (Rory Kinnear) then gazes off into the distance and says, “I think Alan Turing’s hiding something.” He doesn’t hide it for long, though. As soon as he is charged, Turing tells the detective everything he did during the war, conveniently forgetting that his codebreaking activities are still official secrets.

And so, with this fabricated framing device in place, we flash back to Bletchley Park. We meet Turing’s colleagues, including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), the confident, emotional smoothie who serves as a counterpoint to Turing’s awkward loner, and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the good egg who’s there to remind us that sexism existed in the 1940s. Under Turing’s leadership, they abandon their earlier deciphering methods, and build a colossal contraption with wondrous rows of whirring red cogs. It is, says Turing, “a digital computer”. Just in case anyone didn’t catch that, a caption at the end of the film announces that Turing’s invention spawned many more such machines. “Today”, it concludes, “we call them computers.” Gosh! And there I was thinking that he’d pioneered an exciting new type of jukebox.

Given the subject matter, it might be appropriate to say that the film itself could have been generated by a computer—one that had been programmed to analyse “The King’s Speech” and formulate a similar piece of Oscar-friendly heritage cinema. “The Imitation Game” is nowhere near as enjoyable, but it stands as a polished, handsome tribute to British pluck and eccentricity in the face of the Nazis. It features an attractive cast, some snappy dialogue, and crises that arrive with clockwork regularity. It also has an award-baiting central performance in which every stammer and downward glance is timed to the microsecond—although after “Sherlock”, “Parade’s End”, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “The Fifth Estate”, Cumberbatch should probably take a break from playing socially inept, condescending geniuses. Over all, “The Imitation Game” is as neat and tidy as the characters’ clothes, which are brand new and faultlessly tailored, despite the war’s privations. In other words, it has none of the knottiness and confusion of reality.

All non-fiction films are guilty of simplifying events, of course, but this one deals with the complex achievements of some unorthodox people, so it shouldn’t be so facile and conventional. The worst part of it is that, in its determination to be accessible, it ends up insulting the man it’s trying to lionise. It never examines his work in any detail, and when he finally does crack the Enigma code, the solution is forehead-slappingly obvious. You’re less likely to be awed by his brilliance than to ask why he didn’t think of it a year or two earlier.

The Imitation Game is out in Britain on Nov 14th and in America on Nov 28th

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