The Imitation Game – Perhaps pale but interesting imitation

This is my review of The Imitation Game [DVD].

It is common knowledge that Turing was an outstanding mathematician who played a key role during WW2 in developing a form of early computer (based on the Polish “bomba”) to crack the German codes which protected vital military intelligence. This may have shortened the war by two years and saved an estimated 14 million lives. The full extent of his contribution concealed by the Official Secrets’ Act, Turing ran up against the law in the early 1950s when he admitted to homosexual acts during the investigation of a burglary of his house, and chose the punishment of chemical castration rather than prison, to enable him to continue his work. Sadly, he seems to have committed suicide, perhaps to escape the side effects of the medication, or to ease his loneliness.

This is clearly a rich field for an often tense and moving drama – also managing to include a good deal of humour – , which sandwiches the wartime events between scenes of his school days and ultimate arrest. One does not know to what extent he really was an autistic child whose “oddness” and literal-mindedness singled him out for bullying. We see him courting mockery by separating orange carrots from green peas, and finding a welcome refuge in a relationship with another pupil Christopher, whose name is eventually used for the code-crunching machine. Again, the film may exaggerate the extent of Turing’s initial unpopularity at Bletchley Park, for his arrogance and stubborn focus on his machine, unleavened by the ability to socialise or recognise a joke. It seems that, in real life, it was a group decision to get support for the machine by writing to Churchill, but that would have been less dramatic in the film than Turing acting as a loner.

Unlike some reviewers, I did not find the existence of a Soviet spy in Turing’s team at all implausible. It is an interesting idea that this might have been a ploy favoured by MI6 to get information to Russia which was supposed to be an ally at the time. I was also fascinated by a dilemma which I had not considered before: after the code was broken, the knowledge gained could not be put to immediate and total use, since that would have alerted the Germans to the fact, and merely led them to switch to another code which might prove even harder to crack. We are shown how even Turing was chastened by the knowledge of the arbitrary power over life and death which this gave the code-breakers – although was it they who in practice made this choice?

The film is well-acted, with a strong and complex relationship developed between Turing and the gifted and unconventional mathematician Joan Clarke, prepared for them to love each other “in their own way”. The weakest aspect was coverage of Turing’s arrest and subsequent treatment in the early 1950s which seemed rushed and unclear in places. Although it may have altered, simplified and distorted many details into a kind of “faction”, the film does a good job in making a complex and abstruse technical theme essentially comprehensible in outline and interesting to a wide audience, and in showing the tragedy of a brilliant man being treated badly for his eccentricity (which may not have been the case to the extent shown) and persecuted for his homosexuality, which most certainly occurred.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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