The cracking of the Enigma machine – which, thanks to the diabolical construction of the Nazis’ infernal machine, generated codes with 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations – surely ranks as one of the greatest intellectual feats of the 20th century, arguably an even tougher brainbox-baffler than sending a man to the Moon and back. The fact that the man behind it, mathematics professor Alan Turing, was subsequently convicted of indecency on account of his homosexuality, and apparently committed suicide before his wartime exploits could be made public, adds a layer of tragedy to the triumphant episode.
One would think you couldn’t go wrong with a story that compelling, but Michael Apted’s 2001 film Enigma, adapted by Tom Stoppard from the bestseller by Robert Harris, shows how wrong you (and well-meaning filmmakers) can be. That’s the genius of The Imitation Game: despite its occasionally liberal use of artistic licence – there’s no evidence that Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was anywhere on the autism spectrum, that he called his cryptanalytical machine ‘Christopher’, that he met Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) after the war, that chemical castration (punishment for his post-war homosexuality conviction) led to his death, and so on – it feels like, and perhaps is, the best possible telling of the story of the Bletchley codebreakers, viewed through the prism of Alan Turing’s tragically short life.
But just as The Imitation Game makes it seem as though Turing was single-handedly responsible for cracking the code (thousands of people worked at Bletchley Park, and many others were pivotal in cracking the Enigma code, and the Polish contribution is woefully downplayed), it’s tempting to view the film as Cumberbatch’s, given his persuasive performance as the troubled mathematician (Alex Lawther is no slouch either, as Turing’s younger self) whose secret endeavours, it is claimed, “shortened the war by two years, saving 14 million lives.” But that would be to overlook the extraordinary work done by countless others in the service of the story, notably Graham Moore, whose Blacklist-topping screenplay decoded Andrew Hodge’s Turing biography for the screen; Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), whose intelligent direction manages to generate considerable suspense from such notably non-Hitchcockian tropes as ‘watching wheels turn on a giant abacus’; and a flawless supporting cast, including Knightley, Lawther, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance. In their hands, The Imitation Game is a compelling, absorbing and occasionally thrilling tale about the brains behind the Allied war machine.
EXTRAS The three featurettes – a ‘making of’, a look inside Bletchley Park, and something called Alan Turing: Man and Enigma – sound promising, but unlike Turing’s machine, ultimately add up to much less than the sum of their parts. For the bigger picture, track down the BBC documentary Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes instead.