The Enigmatic Codes

Great Britain

Imitation

I’ve always felt an odd connection to the Alan Turing story, mainly because of my father. As a young man he was employed in an experimental research group to try to understand the structure of strengthened glass, to make it and then find a way to seal wiring inside. Valves and wiring were too clumsy and took experts to connect. The idea was to seal the wires in glass tablets and lock them together, then make the connections much smaller.

They knew that some boffins were trying to build the first computer and wanted to pour conductive metal straight into channels cut in silica. But at that stage a silicone chip was impossible to create. Their tools weren’t fine enough to cut the channels. As soon as the laser was invented, he realised it would become a reality.

Turing didn’t work alone, of course, and there are all kinds of problems in telling his story well. One is that the codebreakers of Bletchley were not the troops of ‘Fury’. They were not very personable young men and women sitting in huts sorting through bits of paper. Previous attempts to crack Turing’s own enigmatic personality have ranged from powerful (Hugh Whitemore’s ‘Breaking The Code’) to ham-fisted (Michael Apted and Tom Stoppard’s ‘Enigma’). The BBC released a four-disc box set of documentaries that includes the TV version of Whitemore’s play and offers up the most rounded version of Ultra and the Station X story, including, for example, the role Polish cryptographers played in the cracking of the code.

Now, though, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing deserves to stand as the definitive Turing. In ‘The Imitation Game’, Norwegian director Mortem Tyldum brings us a highly entertaining drama that’s bound to annoy nit-picking critics, because there’s nothing like a biopic to set off a nitpicker. But this is a thriller, not a documentary, so the months of hacking codes are condensed to a single neat eureka moment and the role of Joan, to whom Turing became engaged, is built up to fit Keira Knightley, who acquits herself with nicely underplayed emotional power. And perhaps we should cite the Aaron Sorkin effect on scriptwriters for the dialogue having more crackle and punch than usual.

This version covers three simultaneous time frames; schooldays, the building of the team and post-arrest, and adds detail that even Turing-philes may find surprising, such as the fights with high command and the mental burden of having to hide success; if Bletchley had used the machine to intercept all bombing raids the Germans would have instantly changed their coding, so troops still had to die. There’s a race-against-time element throughout, caused by the Enigma machine’s exponential millions of possible settings that the Germans change every 24 hours, making Turing and his team start all over again every morning.

Just as the authorities had trouble dealing with the sexual proclivities of a man in a sensitive government job, so everyone had a problem handling a man we would clearly now label autistic. Turing is puzzled that people don’t mean what they say. Why would anyone lie? Why be funny or kind? And yet he is eventually required to do all of these things. The codes to be broken are suddenly numerous. Intelligence, humanity, communication, sex, power, love – all coded so deeply that even Turing’s finest crossword-puzzle solvers have huge difficulties cracking any of them.

What all of this gives us, packed tightly into two hours, are a number of satisfying dramatic highs, such as the revelatory night of discovering a way to crack the code (inevitably discovered in a pub) and some well-earned tears, especially when Turing must hurt Joan in order to protect her. And whether you think we’ve seen too much of Cumberbatch of late or not, it’s an absolutely superlative performance.

 

11 comments on “The Enigmatic Codes”

  1. Charles says:

    Though unsaid here for obvious reasons, Turing was also gay. How much does this aspect of him appear in the film?

  2. snowy says:

    I’m looking forward to this film, have been since it was announced. [We should be very grateful that the Leo DeCap/Ron Howard version fell through.]

    [And we can leave discussions of whether or not Bendymint Crumpetmunch is too thin for the role to the ‘towering intellect’ of CamillaL].

    I won’t be nit-picking, it’s not possibe to condense a persons life into two hours. I didn’t know it was a simultaneous narrative though, that could be interesting. [As to any technical accuracy, they show Zygalski-sheets in the trailer, it can’t be all bad.]

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve looked up Zygalski sheets. I knew about them, just not what they were called and good that the whole story will be told with the Polish work given its proper importance. Mr. Cumberbatch should play Turing very well, since he’s been playing a rather autistic character in Sherlock Holmes.

  4. admin says:

    Clearly a lot had to be left out to create a good dramatic arc to the story, but Turing’s schoolboy crush that resulted in his naming Enigma ‘Christopher’ is explored, as well as the robbery. It’s also said in the film (with classic English understatement) ‘It’s probably not the best idea in the world to tell the girl you’re going to marry that you’re homosexual’.

  5. Diogenes says:

    There’s a great story about when Churchill visited Bletchley Park. He wasn’t impressed with personalities of some of the code-breakers, including Turing. As he was leaving he turned to the head of MI6 and said “When I told you to leave no stone unturned recruiting for this place, I didn’t expect you to take me literally.”

  6. pheeny says:

    An ignorant sneer from a little man Diogenes, one I shall remember the next time I hear someone raving about what a hero Churchill was

  7. Diogenes says:

    pheeny

    Churchill made more appalling decisions in his life than almost anyone; Gallipoli, the gold standard, the invasion of Norway, the fall of Singapore and handing Eastern Europe to the Russians at Yalta.

  8. Diogenes says:

    In fairness to Churchill I should add that he did appreciate Turing and said Turing did more than anyone to help win the war. Blackett is the other scientist who is credited with saving England from surrender by stopping the Uboat carnage.

  9. jan says:

    A little aside to all this did u know that a lot of the research credited to have taken place at Bletchley Park in fact took place at the Post office research centre in Neasden. I know that sounds a lot like something from the goons but its true Mr. Flowers a working class hero just as overlooked as Turing created and powered the computer that developed into Colossus at the Post office research centre. The premises now is in the hands of housing association worth a visit to look at the photos in the entrance hall. Beneath the P.O. research building the underground bunker Churchill would have withdrawn the cabinet to had Westminster become unusable. Theres a whole series of very secret premises in and around the Neasden NW2 area the naval bunker – which was so important the government was prepared to drain much of the Welsh Harp reservoir to disguise the area. There was lots of camouflage applied to the NW2 railway sidings near Cricklewood to disguise the site and lots of important property in Harrow and Wembley was requisitioned for war purposes. Station “Z” being beneath Kodaks in North Harrow

  10. Helen Martin says:

    How much of English history is under the stones of Greater London and still visitable? Was the royal family the only group without a bunker? or was Churchill prepared to share his?

  11. Fiona says:

    I saw this film last weekend and thought it was really well done. I thought Benedict Cucumberpants (can’t help messing with his name can we!) was excellent. It’s definitely a film I’d recommend seeing. The other film I would say you must see is Mr Turner. I really couldn’t choose between those two films as to which was better, I thought they were both high quality drama.

    Now I really want to go and see something a bit silly – a film called What We Do In The Shadows – a film played as a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a house of vampires. It just looks hilarious.

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