The 87th Academy Award nominations have been announced, and one of the films contending for the coveted best-picture Oscar is “The Imitation Game,” a riveting biopic about Alan Turing, a brilliant British mathematician who played a major role in ending World War II. Based upon Andrew Hodges book titled “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” this outstanding film certainly is deserving of its eight nominations that also include best actor, best supporting actress, and best director.
The film begins in Manchester, England, in 1952 shortly after Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was arrested for “gross indecency” because of his homosexuality, a sexual preference that was a crime in England during that time. However, the scene quickly switches to London in 1939 and the start of World War II. Turing has just been recruited with some other geniuses to crack the Nazi coding system known as “Enigma.” Turing’s team comprised Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley), John Caircross (Allen Leach), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard).
Just how hard will it be to figure out “Enigma”? Turing explains in a voiceover.
“There are 159 million, million, million possible Enigma settings. All we had to do was try each one. But if we had 10 men checking one setting a minute for 24 hours every day and seven days every week, how many days do you think it would take to check each of the settings? Well, it’s not days; it’s years. It’s 20 million years. To stop an incoming attack, we would have to check 20 million years’ worth of settings in 20 minutes.”
Whereas the other team members approach the task of figuring out the code with conventional methods, Turing decides to build a machine that will do the job despite the doubts expressed by his colleagues. Because he is eccentric to the point of overt rudeness, Turing does not get along well with those working with him. Nevertheless, he insists on doing his own thing, leaving the others to wonder at his folly. Turing becomes obsessed with his machine, which he names Christopher, and of course it’s no secret that Christopher, a precursor of the computer, ultimately solved the mystery of Enigma eventuating in the early termination of the war and the concomitant preservation of millions of lives.
But despite his remarkable accomplishment, Turing’s story is a heartbreaking one, and the film doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his life. His struggle with his sexual preference began when he was in prep school, and series of flashbacks offers a tasteful treatment of this. And a particularly heart-wrenching aspect of the film is Turing’s relationship with Joan, who is actually willing to marry him even though she knows such a union will not be a normal one. She cares for him so much, however, that she’s willing to accept him as he is just so they can live their lives together.
Cumberbatch and Knightley have a terrific chemistry, and thus their mutual scenes are particularly effective. They both unquestionably deserve their respective Oscar nominations, and the segment in which Turing tells Joan that he opted for chemical castration rather than imprisonment is overwhelmingly emotional one. Rather than portraying Turing’s 1954 suicide (There have since been some doubts about this.), we find out about this in a note on the screen before the final credits roll.
Both Turing and Joan are extremely complex people, and in the film’s production notes Cumberbatch and Knightley offered some perceptive comments about their respective characters.
“He (Turing) had a unique and driven and asymmetrical personality,” Cumberbatch said. “He was very high-functioning; he had great empathy levels and was especially caring and had a great affinity with children. He had this unfettered ability to communicate with people and not feel that he was constrained by the usual platitudes, the status quo interaction demanded of a man who was so focused and slightly shy. He was seen as an odd fish, ‘an odd duck’ as his mum called it. He was so capable, so fast-thinking, and so healthy. He was a very physical man. He ran marathons to near-Olympic standard and competed in cross-country events. He would run from his house in Wilmslow to work at Manchester University, a 20-kilometer round trip.
“I talked to people who had known him during his Manchester days and they all said how extraordinarily kind he was, polite and diffident. He didn’t often make direct eye contact, but when he did, you felt bathed in a very humane, intrigued, witty and rather lovely personality. He was very focused and often deemed to be in his own world, in his own line of thinking, in his own thought pattern and he would do some very eccentric things, but he was very open about them. He was a remarkable human being, a very kind soul, a very benign, slightly gauche, but a very doggedly determined, single-minded human being of extraordinary talent and ability. The tragedy of his life is not only that it ended so early, but that he was persecuted in a time of intolerance for his sexuality.”
Cumberbatch masterfully captures all of Turing’s idiosyncratic mannerisms and his myriad eccentricities, and it will be interesting to see how he fares at the Academy Awards presentation in February.
Knightley’s performance complements Cumberbatch’s perfectly, and here’s what she said about the film: “It felt like a very important story to tell. It’s quite extraordinary that you could spend six years of your life doing something like that and then never speak of it again. They weren’t allowed to talk about it, and they weren’t even allowed to talk to each other about it. Alan and Joan were great friends. There was a moment when he thought he could be married to a woman and be ‘normal,’ whatever that means. She was a great friend, and maybe it could have worked out. These are some of the people who helped to win the Second World War. I still need to count on my fingers, so every time I tried to read about the higher mathematics that went into this, I spent three weeks trying to get my head round it and absolutely failed. I am an actress. I’m not a mathematician!”
In addition to the stellar acting, this film beautifully captures the time periods of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s with superb costumes and sets. It’s undoubtedly one of year’s best movies about an incredibly fascinating story. This film has it all – drama, humor, pathos, love, heartbreak, joy, and tragedy. Like Knightley, I’m not a mathematician, but it’s no problem to figure out that after everything I’ve just said about “The Imitation Game” adds up to an indisputable 10. Don’t miss it!