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London Film Festival Review: The Imitation Game

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When Benedict Cumberbatch starred in a relatively small – though pivotal – role in Atonement, he was very much in Keira Knightley’s shadow. She got an Oscar nomination for the film and was one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood.

Now it could be argued the tables have turned, and whilst Knightley is by no means a ‘has-been’, the long arms of celebrity and fame have touched Cumberbatch and raised him above many other heads in the acting profession. He is now a true, major A-lister. Not that celebrity status or fame should have a bearing on a performance. There have been thousands of amazing performances by complete unknowns. But with fame comes the ability to take on roles that may not otherwise be offered and the role of Alan Turing is like a dream for Cumberbatch. If there is any justice in the world, he should at least get an Academy Award nomination.

In case you don’t know, and it is a sad fact that many still do not, Alan Turing was one of the most important people in helping Britain win the Second World War. By breaking the code the Nazis used as their secret method of communication, known as ‘the Enigma code’, he saved the lives of millions.

So, surely he should be a national hero? Shouldn’t his face be on bank notes and his story taught in every school in the land? Why isn’t he better known? For a start, the contribution of him and his team was kept secret for decades after the Enigma code was broken. However, there is an even darker twist to this tale, one that turns a true story of determination and amazing intellectual endeavour into something tragic and upsetting. Turing was gay and was prosecuted for homosexuality. He was given the option of prison or to be injected with hormones in order to give him a so-called ‘chemical castration’ in an attempt to ‘cure’ him of his sexual orientation. To think that the UK government could act in such a way to a man who played an instrumental role in winning us the war is shocking. But this was the fate met by thousands of gay men in the UK before the (immensely restrictive) decriminalisation of some (but not all) homosexual acts in 1967.

Such material gives screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum (the man behind Norwegian drama Headhunters) some difficulties to get over. It is hard to make a story about maths exciting, especially one that ends in the harrowing persecution of the one doing the maths. Depressing perhaps, but exciting is difficult.

A lot of the action involves people sitting in a glorified hut scribbling figures onto bits of paper. Other scenes involve Turing bolting bits onto a large code-breaking machine. And, to top it all, we already know the outcome of such endeavours. But with a combination of intelligent scripting, emotional power and superb acting, it works. In fact, it works brilliantly. The narrative submerges us in Turing’s frustration with those around him, his social awkwardness (one could say Autistic, though Cumberbatch and Knightley got a bit funny about that label in the press conference after the screening I attended) and his certainty that his method would work.

Cumberbatch’s performance is his most effective to date. He truly becomes Turing, at least in the dramatic sense, though how accurate his portrayal is isn’t something I can attest to since there are no recordings or videos of Turing available. For the sake of this film, however, his performance is nothing short of mesmerising. The supporting actors making up his group of code-breakers include Knightley (as Joan Clarke, providing a platonic love interest and a meeting of minds for Turing), Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey’s Alan Leech. All are splendid, though Leech is particularly memorable in the complex role of John Cairncross.  

Helping the film along is Alexandre Desplat’s swirling, euphoric though quietly heartbreaking score. It’s tenderness and lyrical theme is built upon as the film goes on and as ever Desplat succeeds in doing one of the most difficult of things; making your want to beam and cry at the same time.

As previously suggested, the story of Alan Turing offers those interested a conflicting story: one that documents one of the UK’s greatest, most extraordinary moments of success and also one that shames it in a terrible way. The manner in which this nation has, in the past, treated gay people is shocking and the film’s closing moments don’t shy away from the horror of Turing’s fate. We are told at the end of the film that in 2013 the Queen issued a posthumous Royal Pardon to Turing for his so-called crime. The sad truth that echoes behind such a message is the fact that thousands of gay men never received such an apology. The ghost of many ruined lives haunts this story, a story that is essentially about saving human life and trying to make the world a better place. The story of Alan Turing is an extraordinary one and it has thankfully been brought to life with the care and respect he deserves.

The Imitation Game (2014) had its European Premier as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas by StudioCanal on 14 November. Watch the trailer below: 



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