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'The Imitation Game' Doesn't Pretend to Solve the Enigma That Is Alan Turing and His Machine

As visible as the Turing machine may be on screen -- and it is gorgeous, strange, and haunting, as well as sublimely mechanical and daunting -- it remains unfathomable.

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-11-28 (General release)
UK date: 2014-11-14 (General release)

"Are you paying attention? If you're not listening carefully, you'll miss things." Seated across from a police interrogator, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) might appear to be at some risk. It's 1951, and he's been arrested on suspicion that he's homosexual, against the law in England, but still, Turing proposes that he is "in control." This because, as he puts it, "I know things you do not know."

As the frame cuts between the two men, this first scene in The Imitation Game makes clear that Turing does indeed "know things you do not know." This because he's brilliant, being the man who cracked the Nazis' uncrackable code, and also because he's now opposed to the nondescript, plainly overmatched Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear). Though the film, based on Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, presents Turing as a puzzle, surely distant and difficult but also sympathetic. It's a balance achieved by typical movie methods, by making the people around him less sympathetic and also by granting at least passing access to the emotional and social dilemmas Turning endures, mainly through flashbacks to his years as a schoolboy, when he's played by Alex Lawther and bullied mercilessly.

The metaphor that connects Turing and the machine that will bear his name pervades The Imitation Game. Following the jarring moment of crisis in the interrogation room, the movie cuts back in time to show Turing when he presents himself to the British government as its best chance to break the German code. Here he also sits across a desk from an authority, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), head of the Government Code and Cypher School. Turing twitches and stammers, just slightly, his awkwardness an indication of his genius, his self-presentation as the government's best chance to solve "most difficult puzzle in the world," the perfectly named enigma machine (a machine that reportedly had 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible solutions, far beyond the capacity of human calculation). Denniston overrules chief of MI6 Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), who instantly takes offense to Turing's arrogance, and sends his new employee to the GC&CS facility at Bletchley Park to stop the German navy from taking out Allied forces.

Here, specifically in Hut 8, Turing works with and against a team of other geniuses assemble another machine. As much as Turing becomes attached to the machine, which fills a warehouse-sized facility and is deemed the Turing machine, he remains remote from his associates, who resent and admire him, usually at the same time. Their fractious relationships make for bits of dramatic confrontation, as the men know or don't know things about their irascible and judgmental leader. The teammate most inclined to trust in Turing is Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), their friendship providing a backdrop for his struggles with his sexual orientation. When Turing asks Joan to marry him, she agrees. If it's not entirely clear what things she knows, whether she knows he's gay but believes he might change, or whether she doesn't know this thing at all.

That The Imitation Game begins with this thing, with Turing's sexuality, means that you know more than his fellows (though at least one of them guesses and agrees for a time to keep Turing's secret). This helps you to worry that he might be found out and certainly informs your understanding of the legal horrors to which he is subjected: the choice he faces on being convicted in 1951 is either to be imprisoned or accept chemical castration. He chooses the latter, apparently so that he might continue to do his work, the machine filling his home, the computer as elaborate, comforting and emblematic décor.

Because Turing has such affection for the machine, but also because the machine is so large and, while it's working at Bletchley Park, so noisy, it serves not only as an external referent for Turing's many internal complications, but also an environment and character. If much of what the machine does, how it works, how it comes to break the German code, remains unknown, its effects on those humans near it can be painful to see.

As visible as the machine may be on screen -- and it is gorgeous, strange, and haunting, as well as sublimely mechanical and daunting -- it remains unfathomable. Turing might seem more exposed, his emotional upsets legible as such. Even when Turing turns on Joan, directing his frustration and rage at the person closest to him, he's not a monster, but, mirrored in her teary eyes, a tragic, flailing figure, unable to say what he knows. He's a puzzle, yes, but to its credit, The Imitation Game doesn't pretend to solve him.


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