For those of us defiantly opposed to the conspiracy- theory mentality, the story of Bletchley Park kicks up a few uncomfortable questions. It seems it really is possible to keep an intriguing secret – known to several dozen people – away from the general public for decades. Amazingly, until the mid 1970s, only a tiny handful of people knew that a collection of boffins had, during the second World War, broken the German Enigma cipher at that Buckinghamshire estate. In the interim, the story has inspired novels, plays and films. More than 30 years ago, a young Ian McEwan used the title The Imitation Game for a TV drama on the subject.
Following the lifting of the veil, Turing, who killed himself in 1954, belatedly received his due as a misused hero of the war and a pioneer in computing technology. Now, Turing and hiscolleagues get the popular tribute they deserve in a film that – although occasionally patronising and just a little schematic – makes a rip-roaring adventure of the unlikely story.
Benedict Cumberbatch is faced with a rare challenge in the lead role. His version of Sherlock plays on mainstream perceptions – some a little close to the nerve – of folk at the less severe end of the autism spectrum. The actor’s take on Turing sees him attempting a less frivolous variation on the same tune.
Plucked by military intelligence to join a gang of top mathematicians, Turing immediately finds himself saying the wrong thing, misunderstanding intonations and blurting out truths that should have remained unexpressed. The film is guilty of extracting humour from such confusions, but it also allows Cumberbatch to express tortured frustration at being unable to grasp social norms.
Graham Moore’s script it at its best when addressing the peculiar yet plausible argument that a class of Asperger syndrome was key to Turing’s skills as a codebreaker. A man who viewed everyday communication as a cipher was well placed to tackle the challenges of Enigma.
Elsewhere, The Imitation Game often gives in to unsubtle "Eureka!" moments and outbursts of spoken exposition. These mathematicians do have a habit of telling each other things they really ought to already know. We are now aware that, in order to stop the Germans suspecting the code had been broken, intelligence had to allow certain shipping convoys into dangerous waters, but the film is too quick to make that moral dilemma a family crisis for the scientists.
Still, we should, perhaps, not get overly concerned about the film's recourse to narrative gambits. Directed by Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian director of Headhunters, The Imitation Game is a cracking mainstream entertainment of the old school. Óscar Faura's camera luxuriates in the musty shadows of blackout Britain. Our own Allen Leech does good bluff work as John Cairncross (whose later notoriety will act as a spoiler to the well read). Charles Dance brings nine layers of stentorian menace to the role of the uncomprehending Cmmdr Denniston.
The script’s playful structure – we begin with Turing’s arrest for “indecency” in the 1950s and then slip backwards and forwards through time – allows Moore to explore Turing’s fascinating life with great economy.
There have been some understandable objections to the film’s shallow treatment of Turing’s homosexuality. Keira Knightley has good fun channelling Celia Johnson as a wartime colleague and (as they wouldn’t have said then) beard to our hero, but that role only serves to point up what’s missing from the picture. In truth, any treatment of such a dense story was always going to leave out vital elements. We get, at least, cursory treatment of the gay subtext. There is virtually nothing here about the dynamics of the mathematics or the intricacies of the technology.
Leave all that for a documentary. The film-makers have set out to tell us a yarn and they have succeeded admirably. Celebrate a film that will enhance rainy bank-holiday weekends for decades to come.