Last night I settled down to watch my screener of the Benedict Cumberbatch biopic on Alan Turing, THE IMITATION GAME and the heavy hand of less than good Hollywood notes was evident in many, many scenes. I’m not sure if I should both with spoiler warnings since most people know Turing committed suicide at age 41, and the world lost one of its foremost minds to a ridiculous prejudice. But just to be on the safe side I will do so.
I also know a lot of people have complained the film is inaccurate in its details about Turing. I’m no expert on the man so I can’t speak to that. Though after seeing this film I’m going to buy a biography of Turing. He was that fascinating. As for the inaccuracies. I’d just point out that this wasn’t a biography, it was a movie where the first goal is entertainment and any education is just gravy.
The biggest problem was the structure of the film and several of the scenes which felt inauthentic in the extreme. Framing devices can often be very useful and work very well. It didn’t work all that well in this film. They open in 1951 with the investigation of a break-in at Professor Turing’s home, and the story is told by Turing to this detective who is at first hostile and then sympathetic and won over by Turing’s story. The problem is that the Enigma project was classified and top, top secret for decades so the idea that Turing would just blurt it out to this cop in Manchester strained credulity.
And then there were the two scenes that gave me hives. I have been in the room when a producer or a studio suit has given me the note that is going to result in the two scenes that most irritated me in the movie.
The first was when the team realize they have broken the Enigma code and that there is a civilian convoy that is going to be destroyed by German U-Boats. The scene we got was one of the team tearfully begging Turing to alert the Admiralty so the attack can be neutralized by the RAF because the man’s brother is a sailor on one of the escort ships. Turing refuses and we get the breast heaving denunciation that Turing is “a monster”. The scene was fraught, overly dramatic and as a result felt completely inauthentic to me. I know exactly what was said in that notes meeting — “But we need to make this personal.” Yeah, that’s not a bad instinct, but not that way.
As Ed Green and I discussed later a better way to have done that scene was to have the young man point out quietly that “the Reliant (I don’t remember the actual name of the ship) is escorting that convoy.” The rest of the team gives him an inquiring look. And then he quietly says, “My brother serves on that ship.” or “My brother is on that ship.” Then you cut to the footage of the burning and sinking ships, the harsh klaxon of alarms, etc.
You then go to the meeting with MI6 convincing them that the world must not know the code has been broken, followed by scenes where the team does statistical analysis deciding who lives and who dies.
The next moment that really didn’t work for me was when Turing’s former fiancee turns up at his house after he’s been medically castrated, and she sees his mind and body have been destroyed. She then gives this speech about how he made such a difference, and people are alive and cities exist because he mattered! All, of course, delivered in passionate heaving tones.
This felt like the studio feared the audience wouldn’t actually understand the enormity of Turing’s accomplishment unless the put in this very on-the-nose explanation.
I had one final quibble which was Joan. I have no idea why or how they ended their engagement, but the scene in the film didn’t work for me. She is willing to marry him even thought she knows he is gay, but when he tries to push her away she gets mad and slaps him. Now Joan has been working with him for years, she knows he’s way out there on the autism spectrum, but she believes this nasty comment and walks away? That again felt forced, like the writer, producers, director — somebody — didn’t want to take the time to craft a scene that was more in line with their personalities.
What I liked. Well Cumberbatch. He’s amazing. A Best Actor nomination better be coming or I give up on the Academy. I love anything about WWII. Particularly the British resistance to Hitler. It’s awe inspiring. There was a very nice scene when by listening to a man and woman flirt and then a casual remark by the woman gives Turing the key to reprograming his machine so it can break the code more quickly. That was a terrific moment and it was set up very well.
I also loved the irony that the repeated phrase Heil Hitler is what allowed the code to be broken. There’s a certain poetic justice to that.
Bottom line — go see this movie if only for the extraordinary performance by Cumberbatch. And because in this cynical modern world it’s good to reflect on the heroism of our grandparents and great-grandparents who defeated Hitler and the Nazis.