Thursday, October 09, 2014

Review of Alan Turing biopic ‘The Imitation Game’

What if only a machine can defeat another machine?”

Last night, Wednesday 8th October 2014 I was one of the lucky ones, packed into a Cineworld (High Wycombe in my case), watching a simultaneous screening of the London premiere and gala opening of ‘The Imitation Game’ biopic of my hero Alan Turing (My PhD is based on the imitation game to explore machine thinking). Thank you to Show Films First, Amex and the BFI 2014 Film Festival for making this opportunity possible.

Drawing away from the film the mantra ‘Don’t be normal, be Turing’ reverberated in my thoughts all the way back to my home in a London suburb.

Watching the film compels you not to try to 'fit in', it will be seen as a pretence and you’ll be dismissed for it, better to be yourself, be as brilliant as it is possible for you to be, you may be disliked intensely, it may polarise people’s opinions about you, (in the cricket world currently one only has to look at how a batting "talent that comes along too rarely" Kevin Pietersen has been treated by some of his fellow team members and the English Cricket Board, ECB). But being despised is better than being ignored. Turing was not ignored, no one could ignore Turing.

Stepping back to yesterday morning, before I saw ‘The Imitation Game’ movie, I had really wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play Turing, as had been mooted in 2011 with Ron Howard to direct Graham Moore's script based on Oxford mathematician Andrew Hodges' biography. Leo has a similar square-ish face shape to Turing’s – handsome. 

Young Turing_Young Leo

Benedict Cumberbatch’s face is elongated and he doesn’t look anything like Turing, but then neither do Derek Jacobi (BBC Breaking the Code) and Ed Stoppard (Channel 4’s Codebreaker) who have also played Alan Turing

Adult Turing - Derek Jacobi - Ed Stoppard

Benedict is Sherlock Holmes, he seems to epitomise that kind of annoying logical smartass and mechanical sleuth. 

Yesterday Benedict was Turing. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in 'The Imitation Game'

Let’s turn to what I felt after seeing ‘The Imitation Game’ film.

In 'The Imitation Game' film, the characters, and brilliant acting talent portraying the people around Turing at times in his life, included:

Mark Strong (Welcome to the Punch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kick Ass) plays the mysterious but Turing-supportive MI6 head Stewart Menzies who passed Turing’s 1941 request for resources to Churchill. That Prime Minister responded and gave the resources in the plea, unlike David Cameron who had no money to support the Alan Turing centenary events in 2012, including the ‘London Inspire Mark’ award winning Turing100 series of practical Turing tests at the place where Turing broke the enigma code, well, not in Hut 8, but in Bletchley Park mansion’s Billiard and Ballroom on 23 June 2012. 

Turing’s 100th birthday. Mark Strong said, on the red carpet of the gala opening of the BFI London Film Festival: “I hope enough people in the UK know who Alan Turing is, because he is a hero”. Last night in Cineworld at least one of the staff members learnt who Alan Turing was, she asked me after the film what I thought and what certificate it should have, I feel it’s okay for children to watch with parents, in fact they should watch because it will inspire them. More than an Oscar or any ‘gong’, if this movie reaches more people beyond the world of us academics who work in his legacy, widens the circle of interest in Turing, then the film will be a major achievement of the entire production and cast.

Charles Dance said of his character in the film, Commander Denniston, that he was “a bit of a prat” . I’ll leave the reader to watch the film and find out why J

Keira Knightly. One can forget that her character, Joan Clarke, is not a made-up female drawing on cinematic licence ticking all the boxes to connect movies with movie-goers watching them, and who will want to watch them over and over again. Joan Clarke was very real, a first-class Cambridge-educated mathematician like Turing, who was, because she was female, designated a linguist rather than a code-breaker. We can easily forget that in the time Joan was part of Turing’s life it was less than two decades since women had been granted the vote on equal terms with men in the UK (in 1928), and how at Bletchley Park during WWII women assisted men as ‘secretaries’, but were capable of a lot more if given the opportunity, which Joan Clarke showed she so obviously was. 

Times are better for women, but still not great – in the second decade of of the 21st century the UK still has far fewer females populating the higher echelons of academia as University Vice Chancellors. Keira Knightly brings Joan Clarke out of the shadows into the light as a heroine herself and a role model for girls today. Thank you to Keira, for portraying Joan Clarke, not as a glamorous kitten in ‘The Imitation Game’ but with gracious simplicity masking an inner quality beyond beauty as Turing’s mind-for-mind friend.

Keira Knightley as codebreaker Joan Clarke

Benedict Cumberbatch. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, Benedict was not that character as Alan Turing. Depicting the ‘confidant in his work’ mathematician, belief in ‘Turing as the codebreaker; and what the logician was doing, what was needed to be done at that crucial time and how to realise it in a not-normal way, pitting a machine against another machine by firstly focusing on getting a big machine built – was genius thinking. The film does not shirk from the fact that Turing was a homosexual, it’s ever present, but what the film does is not sensationalise that feature of Turing’s character. Alan Turing was much, much more than a homosexual man – he was a complex human being. This is what Benedict captures in his interpreting Turing, played brilliantly as a pioneer who challenged and risked to improve the world. Turing was not perfect, who is? Who wants to be? Turing was not normal; goodness the world needs more not-normals. The Imitation Game showed us that elegantly.

Finally about the film, there are scenes in the movie that I don’t recognise, or remember reading about in Andrew Hodges biographyAlan Turing: the enigma’, or his mother Sara Turing’s book, that the film presents as happening to Turing. It is unimportant as far as the concept of the movie goes – I recall a Greek colleague piqued that Brad Pitt’s Troy related Achilles killed inside the city, rather than what we’re  tuned to by the myth. Creativity in ‘The Imitation Game’ tells a great story of a dazzling intellectual, of the heroic Alan Turing who needs to be as well-known as Leonardo Da Vinci and Einstein. Thanks to Morten Tyldum's movie he will be.

YouTube 'Introduction to The Imitation Game BFI 2014 LFF gala screening':

YouTube 'The Imitation Game premiere, red carpet interviews at the 2014 London Film Festival':

Interviews of the cast of 'The Imitation Game', including Mark Stong here:


Readers might want to check the the 60th anniversary 'Turing on Emotions' 2014 special volume (5) with two issues of papers ranging from articles about Turing the man to Turing-related work in the international journal of synthetic emotions (IJSE), they include:

Film Theory and Chatbots. 5(1), pages 17-22

Feelings of a Cyborg. 5 (2), pages 1-6

See here for full contents list of IJSE Volume 5 issues 1-2:

 © Huma Shah 9 October 2014  - please note all images in this blog post have been taken from across the web

[NB: updated with YouTube clip and links]


Update 23 November 2014

I've now seen The Imitation Game film five times (8 October and 8 November pre-UK release, then 16, 18 and 22 November), once with my boss and his wife.  W/E 22-23 November, the Turing story on film is sitting at number two in the IMDB Box Office after Interstellar - Chris Nolan's 2001: Kubrick inspired space adventure.

The more I see the Imitation Game the more I admire Turing-type characters who have such self-belief and confidence in their talent that they challenge authority with the nature of a child. The scene in the film where Cumberbatch's Turing roars "You people will never understand the importance of what I am creating here" reminds of every time 'authority' continues with its old ways regardless of how unsuccessful they may be, too weak to take the risk, too self-important to envelope imagination.

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