The Enigmatic Codes
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.