Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a brilliant mathematician who was also an early pioneer of computer science, and his enormous contribution to computer science is still influencing our world even at this point. His concept of automatic computing machine, called Turing Machine, has been an important theoretical model for many computer science researches since he conceived it in 1936, and he even devised that famous artificial intelligence test for determining whether a computer can perfectly imitate human communication (no computer has ever succeeded in passing it yet, by the way).
Mainly focusing on one dramatic point in his research career, “The Imitation Game” gives us a compelling human portrayal of Alan Turing, and it is simultaneously exciting and poignant as observing not only Turing’s genius but also his lonely life story. He was one of key members behind the secret government project for breaking a military code which was thought to be unbreakable by many people during the World War II, and he helped his country win the war through his significant success in that project, but he was still remained to be an outsider with a personal secret which ultimately caused an irreversible downturn during his later years.
When the World War II has just started during late 1939, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has already been recognized as a mathematical prodigy in his young age, is recruited to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. His interview with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) does not go smoothly mainly due to Turing’s awkward anti-social attitude, but Denniston decides to hire Turing in the end in spite of that.
With Commander Denniston as their supervisor, Turing and other recruited guys soon participate in a covert government project which must be kept as a top-secret to anyone outside the project. Nazi Germany has used an electronic cyphering/decyphering device called Enigma for its military operations, and the British government has not yet found a way to break the complex code generated by this machine although they managed to acquire an Enigma machines through Poland. Many codebreakers have tried to break this code, but Enigma machine can freely change its setting among at least 1.59 x 10^20 different settings through its complex mechanism, and, to make the matters all the more daunting, the German military change their setting every day for security reason.
Breaking the Enigma code looks like an impossible task for this overwhelming reason, but Turing has one good idea which he is ready to push it already. He believes machine can do that daunting job instead through faster calculation process, and he instantly begins to work on the development of his computing machine to defeat Enigma machine. Although he does not get along with other colleagues including Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) during their first days, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a new member who is later recruited by Turing, helps him finding a way to get a little closer to his colleagues, and Alexander and other guys in the project slowly come to recognize Turing’s immense talent as supporting him for their common goal.
While often emphasizing their urgent circumstance through the war which is being continued outside day by day, the movie is mainly driven by Turing’s personality and his relentless pursuit for a breakthrough in his project, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who was recently Oscar-nominated for his superb performance in this film, is perfectly cast as an aloof genius who is more comfortable with his scientific research than human interactions. As a very smart guy, Turing can surely learn how to be more social with others, but he still looks awkward and clumsy as before, and we get a small humorous scene when Turing baffles his colleagues with his naive attempt to be a little nicer than usual.
And we come to see more of his human side through his relationship with Clarke, who understands Turing’s solitary position better than anyone as a very smart female mathematician whose talent has been underrated and ignored by others just because she is, well, a woman. While she has more social disadvantages than Turing as she says to him at one point (“I’m a woman in a man’s job. I don’t have the luxury of being an ass.”), she willingly supports him from the beginning, and, as getting closer to each other through their work, Turing and Clarke begin to feel more attraction between their brilliant minds although he has never considered marriage because of a personal reason he has been hiding from others for many years.
As following the progress of Turing and others’ secret project with accumulating tension inside and outside the screen, the screenplay by Graham Moore, which is based on Andrew Hodges’ non-fiction book “Alan Turing: The Enigma”, frequently switches back and forth between the wartime and Turing’s early years and later years, and this non-linear narrative approach works effectively as the screenplay delves deeper into Turing’s personal life step by step like a decoding process for secret information. While the flashback scenes poignantly shows young Turing’s close relationship with one of his schoolmates who encouraged his friend’s interest in cryptology, the opening scene begins with the police investigation of a mysterious incident at Turing’s house in 1951, and it is devastating to see how this incident eventually causes his public disgrace – and the bitter end of his life in 1954.
The movie is directed by Morten Tydlum, a Norwegian director who previously directed “Headhunters” (2011). That movie was one of the finest thriller films I watched during 2012, and I especially enjoyed how it kept surprising me in many unexpected ways. While we know well how the story will end in “The Imitation Game” in contrast (Seriously, is there anyone who does not know how the World War II ended?), Tydlum did a skillful job of maintaining enough level of suspense and interest as Turing and his colleagues race against time to get their mission accomplished. Accompanied with Alexandre Desplat’s delicately pulsating score, the melancholic atmosphere of England during the wartime functions as a fabulously moody background, and Turing later finds himself in that gray moral territory of espionage through Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a wily head of MI6 who has been doing his own imitation game behind his back (it was said that “M” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories was inspired by this real-life spymaster).
And it is also fascinating to watch Turing’s codebreaker machine recreated on the screen. Even when this big machine literally looks like spinning its wheels for long hours, we cannot help but be amazed by its intricate mechanism represented by many spinning cylinders and countless wires – and how far our computer technology has moved forward from that elementary stage initiated by Turing and other leading pioneers.
Unfortunately, despite his invaluable achievement which not only shortened the war but also possibly saved many lives during that time, Turing’s work at the Bletchley Park was remained classified for many years, and he did not live long enough to see the rapid development of computer science during the late 20th century. There is a particularly sad scene when Turing becomes more morose to see that his mind and body are no longer functional as before due to a very cruel treatment forced upon him during his later years, and Cumberbatch is heart-wrenching in this gloomy barren state of his tragically broken character.
The actors surrounding Cumberbatch are solid in their supporting jobs. Matthew Goode, Allan Leech, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance are fun to watch as their characters react to Turing in different ways along the story, and Keira Knightley, who received an Oscar nomination along with Cumberbatch, is especially wonderful when Clarke shows how much this resilient woman is determined to fulfill her professional ambition in the world of men – even when she feels hurt by a man she truly cares about as a soul mate.
As an entertaining period drama film, “The Imitation Game” powerfully illuminates the life and achievement of its ill-fated hero who belatedly received a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. While feeling sad about how unfairly he was treated just because he was ‘different’, we are also reminded of how much he achieved during his short life, and its most memorable line sounds more meaningful to us in the end even though it initially sounds a bit corny: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”