Thursday, September 18, 2014

TIFF14: The Imitation Game's enigma

Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch,
Matthew Goode and Alan Leech offer strong
ensemble work in The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is Morten Tyldum's biopic of Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing, a Cambridge mathematician who MI-6 (the most discreet level of British intelligence at the time) seconded to help break the famous Enigma machine codes which the Nazis were using. Turing is a very complex figure who never seems to be described the same way twice in the books which chronicle this era. By turns irascible and arrogant and cunning and compassionate, he frustrated, angered and ultimately won the loving respect and support of the team of codebreaking strategists he worked with. He also happened to be gay. Not seven years after the war ended, he was ignobly arrested and threatened with imprisonment for having consensual sex with another man, then a criminal offense in Britain. Fearing what would happen to him in prison, he opted instead to take a hormonal treatment which irrevocably impacted him mentally, emotionally and physically.

It took until 2009 (ie after the stories of Bletchley had become known) for any government-authored apology and pardon process to begin, and Queen Elizabeth only enacted that pardon just last December, 2013. For nearly sixty years, Turing's extraordinary efforts to end the war were clouded in his official record by having picked-up a man. His security clearance was removed, his achievements rendered invisible. The cruelties of war were superseded by the cruelties of peace time - and a hero's honours are especially slim when their work has been clouded in a different kind of secrecy, one the government required. Alan Turing lived in constant shadows - largely of his government's making.

Turing was arrogant and
difficult but he was mostly very driven.
Cumberbatch doesn't just play that,
he illuminates it.
Morten Tyldum understands all this. And perhaps even more credit should be given to Graham Moore's brilliant screenplay, which gives us the Turing story as it should be told: as the sum of all of its parts. All of Turing's experience must live alongside each other, so that history, and the country, can see how he was treated. The three part non-linear interweaving of the film follows Turing in his childhood boarding school attachment to his first and great love Christopher, who first introduced him to ciphers and codes and who offered him much-needed personal affirmation and affection. These bits come in addition to the sequences around the 1950s arrest and the whole Enigma Bletchley drama.

This non-linear structure works well and builds to an effectively moving climax that is satisfying emotionally on the level of character as much as it offers the famous breakthrough that led to the cracking of Enigma. It is sometimes very hard to create suspense with a story we all know the ending to, but Tyldum and Moore do it, in part by unpredictably shifting eras and offering insights to Turing's personality. We come to know him most deeply by the end, but he still remains something of a cipher himself. Even Joan Clark (played by Keira Knightley) who arguably understood him best, felt the blunted edges of his variable moods and states of mind from time to time. Even she couldn't always navigate his intense mood swings in the relentless pursuit of the machine that could break the Nazi machine and end the war. But, as the movie tells us several times, "sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine." 

Tyldum has cast Benedict Cumberbatch to capture the elusive genius and we are lucky he did, as Cumberbatch has found a way to vibrate both vulnerability and a brassy brilliance in a highly nuanced performance that stretches over two separate eras and holds the memory of a third. I was very moved by his choices, his intense stare of concentration, his weeping over losses. He finds a depth that is astonishing in a piece that moves as fast as this one. Keira Knightley hits all the right notes as his partner in deciphering, and makes much of her short scenes - a perfect counterpart. I also enjoyed Matthew Goode and Alan Leech as other members in various states of conflict and companionship with Turing. All of the performances are strong and the screenplay is tight, efficiently managing the multiple storylines without leaving us stranded in meaning.

My only fault with The Imitation Game is not enough to change its favour with me, but is significant. It's the premise the story hinges on. The conceit is an imagination that Turing told his whole story to a detective while being detained on the indecency charge. 

A scene from the 1950s era part of the storytelling.
The intricate weaving of the three stories is
what gives the movie its depth.
The great miracle of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, besides what they accomplished, is their profound commitment to secrecy. They began work under vow of same with execution for high treason as the promised penalty for breaching. Many many many codebreakers lived long lives and died with that secret. To my mind, there is no way that Turing would have broken that vow to tell a mere detective/stranger the entire story. I couldn't help feeling that a film which otherwise beautifully captures his complexities of character, betrays that character with this choice. 

Even so, The Imitation Game is very much worth seeing. It shows us that human beings are always behind machines even when progress has made those individuals invisible. Their ghosts and their stories are part of our human history but they also create other histories. In the case of Turing, there are people alive today who owe their very existence to his accomplishments and that of his team. I'm glad that the whole story of this man has now been told in such a way as to connect all parts of him to the same accomplishment, and give all of it the dignity that it deserves.

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