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Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, BBP Imitation, 2014)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 01 Dec 2020

The Imitation Game – A

FilmHistoryRead
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

An argument could be made that there has never been a more important “a” in history than the one that is portrayed in The Imitation Game (2014).

Based on the 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film charts the short but impactful life of British cryptanalyst, mathematician, computer scientist and much more Alan Turing. The Academy Award-winning screenplay by Graham Moore cleverly tells the story of Turing’s life across three timelines, with the opening and closing scenes set within the final years of his life, flashbacks to his teenage years throughout, but the bulk of the action taking place during the outbreak of World War II.

Recruited to head up Britain’s team of experts tasked with cracking Germany’s Enigma Machine, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing isn’t that different from the Hollywood stereotype of a tortured genius initially. He’s socially awkward, doesn’t play well with others, is unrivalled in his intellect, and nobody understands him … that is until the entry of Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke. It’s Joan’s friendship that helps build a bridge to teamwork, where he’s able to eventually work with and alongside the others at Bletchley Park to build a machine that can decipher Enigma’s changing daily codes in a fraction of the time it would take for human beings to figure it out.

Turing’s life is a sad story, with the once in a generation genius taking his own life after suffering through government enforced chemical castration when his sexuality was discovered. The Imitation Game ends on that beat, adding a footnote to the tragedy with the information that Turing and his team’s eventual cracking of Enigma ended the war some two years earlier than estimated, saving around 14 million lives. It’s a flash – just a flash– of uplift that is captured in this scene and in this “a” after Turing, Crawford and company sprint to their headquarters after an epiphany at the local pub. Using a phrase they know for certain will be in every coded German message – “Heil Hitler!” – they have their machine create a baseline and essentially crack the code. Or at least in theory that’s what they hope. To check their work, they have to reprogram the specifications into a smuggled Enigma machine and see if the message is translated accurately.

As Crawford shouts out every letter one by one – “M – Y – M – S … ” – and so on, Turing frantically enters them and following a heart pounding wait, the message is translated. They have cracked Enigma and the team rejoices, not aware of the tough decisions that lay ahead as they have to mathematically decide what lives to lose and which ones to save in order to maintain the ruse that Enigma has remain uncracked. This moment – history’s great “a” – is as good as The Imitation Game gets, it being the triumphant high note that illustrates what all of the sacrifices have been for without any of the devastating reality about what’s to come.

– Maria Lewis