About the Bletchley Park code breakers of the German Enigma machine. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master code breaker. He is gay and had a relationship with a school mate Christopher after whom he calls his machine. It’s about his fraught relationship with his superiors Denniston (Charles Dance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) of MI6, and with his colleagues Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode). At one point Turing’s suspected of being a Soviet spy. We jump in time from schooldays (1928) to Manchester (1951) when the police inspector (Rory Kinnear) visits Turing’s home after suspected gay relationships (then a criminal offence). The inspector also hints at the Soviet spy angle. Turing has to accept medication in order to avoid prison, with tragic consequences.
We’ve had a few films about this subject. I haven’t seen the others but this film tells us that Turing and his team, if they didn’t win the war against Nazism, they certainly shortened it and saved 14 million lives (how do we know this?). The efforts of the code breaker Tommy Flowers go unacknowledged, as does the contribution of the Russian army and American resources in bring Nazism down. Naturally we get fancy accents and everyone being very British and easily embarrassed, except for the licensed tantrums of Alan Turing. This film has its toenail curling Attenborough moments: the understated epiphanies where characters say “Gosh, we’ve defeated Hitler”, the set piece emotional outbursts before the big breakthrough, the awestruck reverence before genius at work. This ties in with the ‘curse of Richard Curtis’, twee Britishness juxtaposed with momentous events, the loving attention given to an Arthur Mee conservative Britain, the clues of future greatness, the suppressed emotions in khaki and tweeds, and the ‘Ovaltine’ and ‘Hovis’ uniforms all the extras wear. Like all these sorts of bio-pics about clever people, we have to work out the impact of their genius on their psychology (usually simplified to frustration and cathartic workouts). Ranges of emotion are compressed to lovable foibles. Like with Amadeus, genius opposed by resentful authority in the person of Denniston (Charles Dance) who tries to undermine the brainy upstart all the way. Mark Strong is superb as Stewart Menzies of MI6 who is all suave sophistication against Turing’s unworldly autism. Strong can hold a scene on his own, exuding authority with minimal effort. Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke battling the sexism that preceded our own supposedly sexist free era. It’s no challenge for Cumberbatch to play the stroppy genius, but he is moving as a hunted and tortured Turing at the end.
The code breaking machine itself looks like an oversized Gothic coffee machine designed by H.G. Welles. I thought of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk in a spoof scene, as he wondered why the yellow lights didn’t flash in time with the green lights and why can’t Scottie use his spanner? We have the usual substitutes for showing us brain work: portentousness mixed with hokey sentiment as the camera moves in on the breakthrough moment. The tragedy of Turing’s chemical castration is skirted round with a ‘Cluedo’ detective story in 1950’s Manchester. Imitation Game does not break any moulds.