Being an outsider is never an easy thing.
While there is often much you gain from observing from the sidelines, from not being subject to the usual whims, pressures and foibles of the so-called “in crowd” such as a keen appreciation for the multitudinous quirks of of human nature and the freedom to set your own pace, there is also a great deal lost.
No one probably felt this more keenly than Alan Turing, widely regarded as the man responsible for modern computing, who went from persecuted outsider status at school to the centre of the British war effort in the 1940s and back to pariah in the course of an all too short and cruelly truncated life.
Played with admirable understatement but unmistakable presence by Benedict Cumberbatch, in likely the finest performance of his career to date, Turing was a socially ill-adept man who though gifted with ferocious intelligence and a left-of-field ability to see what others could not, found himself unable to transcend a world in which your failure to dance to the prevailing tune of the day earned you censure, no matter how great your achievements or iconic your status.
He was, after all, the man, who together with an initially fractious and then devoted team at the top secret Bletchley Park facility in the UK – Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Allen Leech as John Cairncross and Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton – cracked the much-vaunted and hitherto unbreakable Enigma Code via which Germany transmitted its war plans to its widely-dispersed forces.
He also masterminded, in conjunction with MI6, represented in the film by Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a strategy to keep this most critical of discoveries under wraps in an effort to avoid tipping off the Germans to the fact that the Allies could now follow, with war-winning precision, their every military move.
His efforts, and those of his team, supposedly shortened the war by two years, and saved millions of lives, earning Turing, from those few in the know, eternal gratitude but not it seems impunity from the perversely unjust moral code of the day which saw Turing’s well-hidden homosexuality as too great a sin to be forgiven.
The Imitation Game begins its mesmerising tale in fact at the point where Turing, back to being a professor at Cambridge after his stellar but largely unsung pivotal role in turning the tide of World War Two in the Allies favour, suddenly finds himself back in society’s bad graces after a break-in at his home by a rent boy sees his sexuality become a matter of public record.
The movie then moves back and forth, first rather quickly and then at a more sedate pace which allows the events time to unfold and characters room to breathe, between this terrible final period in Turing’s life, leading up to his chemical castration and then suicide in 1953-54, his school years in the ’20s where he was frequently the subject of sometimes quite violent bullying (Alex Lawther as Young Turing is magnificent), and his glory years at Bletchley Park (where he often sparred with Cdr. Alastair Denniston played with wit and exasperation by Charles Dance), focusing its main efforts, naturally enough, on the middle period.
A bio pic which largely ticks the boxes you’d expect it to, it transcends the usual tropes of the genre, thanks to a finely-balanced script by Graham Moore, who based the film on Andrew Hodges’ 1983 book Alan Turing: The Enigma, and nuanced direction by Morten Tyldum, and Cumberbatch’s unwillingness to simply play Turing as an outsider blighted by the system.
That was he exactly that is not in dispute with all his many laudable achievements not enough payment for his failure to march fully to the outdated, conformist beat of society’s drum, but rather rendering him as a figure of abject pity and scorn, Cumberbatch imbues Turing with a tenacious three-dimensionality that lifts well above the well-trod path of misbegotten victim.
His tenacity of course was borne of his outsider status, and was the reason, so The Imitation Game alleges, for his insights and out-of-the-box ability to see what others could not see; sadly it cost him more than he should have ever been asked to pay.
He didn’t do what he did alone, of course, and the movie makes a great deal particularly of his relationship with Joan Clarke, a kindred spirit and outsider by virtue of her gender, with whom he became quite close, even becoming engaged to her at one point to keep her in the program at Bletchley Park, and to publicly conceal his career-ending homosexuality.
It is primarily through the lens of their close friendship that we see much of what transpires during the war years, the highs and the lows. the social missteps and eventual bonding of the team, and towards the end how great an injustice was perpetrated on this most brilliant of men.
The Imitation Game is manifestly clear on the fact that though Turing accomplished a great deal for his country and should rightly have been hailed as a hero, and lauded for launching the computer industry as we know it today, he was instead pilloried and humiliated for simply being himself.
The film doesn’t overplay this message, elegantly and simply pointing out that the world has lost a great deal by persecuting people such as Alan Turing, whose only real crime was that they failed, as outsiders of one sort or another, to play by the rules of a game whose rules were deleteriously and egregiously never weighted in their favour.
What sets The Imitation Game apart from the usual bio pic pack in the end though is its willingness to cast Turing’s life against the backdrop of the world as a whole, to underline the fact that if we’re to truly call ourselves a civilised society that we must recognise the inherent truth in the line that is repeated on more than one occasion by more than one character throughout this most remarkable and moving of films:
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.”