By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH and JOE AUCIELLO
The Imitation Game, a film biography directed by Morten Tyldum, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly.
Director Morten Tyldum has crafted an excellent fictionalized film biography, “The Imitation Game,” based on the book, ”Alan Turing: The Enigma,” by Andrew Hodges. The film portrays Turing as an intelligent though troubled man, whose complex hand-built machine—a precursor to today’s computer—broke the Nazi enigma code, and is thought to have shortened the war by two years.
The film is set mostly at Bletchley Park, Britain’s government code and cipher school, hidden behind iron gates bearing the misleading plaque, “Radio Manufacturing.” Commander Denniston (the talented, ubiquitous, British actor Charles Dance) heads it up.
Based on his reputation as a mathematical genius, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is up for an Academy Award) is interviewed by Denniston to join a team of mathematicians in the Hut, an outbuilding where they work to break the code. These initial scenes depict Turing as a serious, cerebral, no-nonsense man who doesn’t realize he is disrespectful when he lets people know that he believes them to be incompetent ignoramuses. He understands neither irony nor sarcasm.
The Germans change the code every day to a mind-boggling 159 million, million, million, million settings, forcing Turing and his frustrated team to restart their calculations. He figures that working out the code manually as they had been doing would take an astonishing 20 million years. Instead, he will build a machine to break Germany’s enigma, he tells them.
A harbinger of the Cold War anti-Communist hysteria weaves throughout the film as a parallel plot involving the suspicion that Turing is a Russian spy, radicalized by the Soviets at Cambridge. In a flash forward to the early 1950s, he reports that his apartment was broken into and things were messed up, but nothing was missing. Still the police believe Turing is hiding something, and they are determined to find it.
Turing hires Joan Clarke (a believable Kiera Knightly) because she solved his crossword puzzle under the allotted time of six minutes. Since Clarke was a woman, no one believed that she could solve it. Once hired, and thought to be a secretary, she is initially denied entrance to the Hut. Even then, she is relegated to bunk with the female administrators and secretaries in another building.
Turing and Clarke enjoy a copacetic relationship. However, social pressures regarding a single woman working so closely with a man decide that Turing and Clarke must get engaged. Joan has no problem with his homosexuality; he will neither be the perfect husband nor she the perfect wife. Regardless, the engagement soon ends.
It’s believed that breaking the code saved millions of lives. But it couldn’t save Turing’s. After the war, he continued to work in crystographic consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters until his conviction for “gross indecency”—the same law that brought down Oscar Wilde—and his security clearance was revoked. After almost a year of probation and public humiliation, and undergoing “chemical castration,” which affected him physically and mentally, Turing allegedly committed suicide in 1954 (some suspected he was murdered). He was forty-one.
The British government, ever alert to treason, ultimately committed its own act of betrayal. When Alan Turing was arrested for the then crime of homosexuality (“He’s a pouf!” one detective exclaims to another), senior government officials might have intervened on his behalf, but they did not. The nation that Turing helped to protect could have protected him. The man who kept secrets for his government was betrayed by a government that refused to keep his secret.
Yet, at the same time, the British government was quite willing to shield a real traitor—one of their own. The Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII, prior to his abdication in 1936 and marriage to Mrs. Wallis Simpson) was a partisan of the Nazi regime before and during World War II and an admirer of Hitler.
The Duke aided the Axis cause in a number of ways. Prior to the war, Edward told an Italian diplomat that the Allies had broken the Italian intelligence codes. After war was declared, when Luftwaffe bombs fell on London, the Duke passed strategically significant military and political information to the German High Command and continued to the best of his ability to aid the Nazi cause.
The British and American governments were well aware of the Duke’s treasonous activities but merely shunted him aside. As punishment, in the 1940s, he was appointed governor of the Bahamas, and ultimately retired to a quiet life in Paris, where he died in 1972, fondly remembered throughout the world as the man who gave up the British crown for true love.
Alan Turing, who had been arrested on charges of “gross indecency” and hounded to his death, had long since been forgotten. Only in recent years have many posthumous honors been awarded Turing for his “fantastic contribution to the war effort.”