The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

“Are you paying attention? Good. If you’re not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.” Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice washes over the dark theater. It is impossible to know who he is talking to, but it feels as if he is speaking to you. Are you paying attention? Are you listening?

So begins The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

It starts in 1951 with a police investigation of a break in at the house of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mathematician, where two policemen find Turing sweeping cyanide spilt during the robbery.  He sends the officers away, but one officer, Detective Knock (Rory Kinnear) is intrigued and digs deeper. His investigation pulls the audience back to the year 1939, when Turing interviewed for a job as a British cryptanalyst working to decrypt the Nazi Enigma cipher, the code that the Nazis used to keep almost all of their major communications during World War II secret. Enigma had over 150 million million possible settings. To try them all would take millions of years, and the Germans changed the key every day at midnight. Every day, the cryptologists had to start again from scratch.

The movie revolves around the race to crack the Enigma cipher. Alan Turing’s story ties together elements from his lonely childhood and introduction to codes, the war, and his interrogation years later after being accused of homosexuality, which was at the time a criminal offense. It brings all three parts together to tell the story of the breaking of the Enigma cipher, how it came to be broken, and how it changed those who worked on it forever.

Cracking the Enigma cipher was crucial to winning World War II, but it was incredibly secret. For decades after the war, no one knew that the British had broken the cipher, and it was only recently that the information was released. And it’s amidst all of this secrecy that Alan Turing, a young mathematical prodigy, secures an interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) the head of a department of British cryptography.

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Peter Hilton (Matthew Bearde), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allan Leech) and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) discuss the machine that they are creating. Though initially skeptical, they have decided that it is their best hope. (Peter Viney)

Turing joins the cryptography team at Bletchley Park, a ragtag team of linguists, chess champions, mathematicians, and crossword enthusiasts. Turing quickly alienates himself, dismissing them as incapable of comprehending his thinking machine. Alan Turing’s incomprehension of humor and belief that he is smarter and more capable than others are used to lighten the story, if only momentarily, and use humor to provide further insight to Turing’s character.

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only female codebreaker at Bletchley Park, is the only person who isn’t put off by Turing’s personality. When she claimed to have finished the crossword that Turing had had published in the newspaper as a test for more potential staff, no one believed her—except Turing.

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This was the actual crossword in the newspaper that was presented as a challenge. Those who finished in less than 12 minutes were considered for a job at Bletchley Park. Could you have worked there?


Joan becomes Turing’s first ally at Bletchley Park, and convinces him that he needs to stop alienating himself—that he can’t do everything alone. Turing begins his first attempts to work with other people, almost painfully awkwardly, but in a way that’s so earnest that you can’t help but like him, especially after watching scenes from Turing’s years at school, and how his social ineptitude affected him there. With Joan’s help, he begins to work with his team, rather than just next to them. Their relationship between the five code-breakers grows and develops with the characters, from reluctant colleagues to enemies to grudging respect to friends. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and breaking an unbreakable Nazi code is one of them.

Turing’s childhood, his work on Enigma, and his conviction and subsequent interrogation for homosexuality, are artfully woven together to show the enigmatic man who deciphered an encryption system thought to be unsolvable with one idea: “What if only a machine could defeat another machine?”

The Imitation Game doesn’t go in chronological order, and the story wouldn’t be half as poignant if it did. Through a series of flashbacks, Alan Turing’s backstory is revealed, bit by bit. The flashbacks to his childhood are shown to shine light on the reasons for Turing’s actions, one at a time.  The shots that go forward, to his interrogation in 1951 and voice-overs from this conversation are also carefully placed, to take a step back, and give a more removed perspective on the events, making the themes of the movie stand out even more.

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Alan Turing deciphers a German message for the first time. Just hours before, Turing had discovered the flaw in the Germans’ use of Enigma, and the team had successfully found that day’s key to the cipher. (Scott Foundas, Variety)

The bulk of the movie takes place during World War II, but The Imitation Game is not a movie about the fighting or invasions or soldiers of World War II.The war is shown throughout, in cuts to grainy videos of fighting, in clips of tanks pushing an empty helmet into the ground as they press on. But it is not these images of war that truly set the grim atmosphere of a country in the midst of a war—it is the lighting.

This film is not bright and full of color. It is almost as if the lights are slightly dimmed, and grayer than they would be naturally. Colors that look like they should be bright are subdued, and the grayness of the picture exudes a somewhat more strained, grim feeling. It is a constant reminder, through moments happy and sad, that there is more going on that not all is well because there are still thousands of soldiers dying every day. It casts the pallor of war over the film, and seems to represent that the war left no one and nothing untouched. It tainted every emotion and event, and was utterly inescapable.

Underneath the overall effects and styles, it’s the little things which make the Imitation Game great, the things which, if you don’t pay attention, as Turing cautioned at the beginning of the film, you will miss. It’s the cyanide at the beginning of the first scene, the carrots and peas mixed together in one of the last. From the books set out on the table to the apples that Turing gives out as peace offering of sorts, every detail is deliberate, and adds a dizzying amount of depth to the story.

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Alan Turing (Cumerbatch) works on his decryption machine. Turing’s machine was designed to break the code by trying combinations and figuring out what to do next– the first digital computer. (Studio Canal)

One of the things that I loved most about the movie, though, was Turing’s personality. It is not masked, hidden or sugar coated. I was perfectly aware of his grating personality, and under no delusions about his ego. His awkwardness and social ineptitude is clearly visible. And this, I think, appeals somewhat to anyone who, in any situation doesn’t know what to say, how to react or what would be appropriate.

Despite all of Turing’s quirks and oddities and annoying habits, there is something about the way that Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing that is endearing. It is exceptional acting. Turing’s character is shown to have dozens of layers. Cumberbatch manages to portray a careful combination of cold, rationality and wrenching emotion concealed by walls of logic built up over years of exclusion and abuse for being different.

Alan Turing was different in more than his need to separate the carrots and peas on his plate, though. In 1951, he was arrested for what was called “gross indecency”—for homosexuality, which was a then a punishable crime.

Alan Turing’s sexual orientation is present throughout the film, but not overwhelming. There are several instances in which it is discussed outright, but more often it is a subtle undercurrent. The Imitation Game slips the issue of LGBT rights into the back of your mind, growing stronger every time you see Turing’s anguish. The Imitation Game addresses the issue in a way that will leave you thinking about it for weeks afterwards, your mind constantly returning to Turing’s story, as well as the thousands of other people who were arrested then and suffer today.

The Imitation Game is a movie about the people who have never fit in, who no one expects anything of, who are different. Throughout the movie, repeated by Turing’s childhood friend, and then by Turing, almost as a mantra, is the idea that “Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” By the end of the film, when Turing’s mind is half destroyed, he seems to have lost faith in the message that he told himself so many times. But Joan’s final message to Alan is one that you can’t help but agree with, for yourself, for Turing, and for everyone who has ever felt different: “If you wish you could have been ‘normal,’ I can promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.”