The Imitation Game, movie released November 2014

As mathematics undergraduates in the 1960s we heard about Turing machines — hypothetical devices that can manipulate symbols on an infinite tape — but learned nothing about Alan Turing, whose work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War remained unknown to anyone outside the inner core of the security services.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Visiting there four years ago for a press article they told me the story of a husband and wife who only found out one another’s secret 46 years later, though both had worked on the campus. Not meeting on campus is one thing, but never telling one another where they worked is something else, yet official secrets were secrets, not to be divulged to anyone. With that in mind the work in Hut 8 — the focus of this movie — would have been unknown to other workers at Bletchley, but it was where Turing built his mechanical computer to crack the daily settings for the German Enigma codes, used for naval intelligence. We see the raw emotion of people working closely together, along with the frustrations of creative thinking where interminable hours of thought get nowhere until suddenly … a different environment inspires a flash of insight. In the movie this turning point occurs in a pub off campus, and the team runs helter-skelter back to put the idea into effect.

Turing and team

Turing and team

But success has its dark side. What should they reveal? If they can rescue one North Atlantic convoy might not the Germans realise they have been compromised, and change the system completely rendering all their work useless. This is not just a question of cracking codes but winning the war by clever deception. Turing understands this, and the movie very cleverly runs two other stories in parallel with the main one: Turing’s younger life at boarding school, and an infuriating detective in Manchester.

The schoolboy knows how to hide his emotions and has learned the art of concealment, while the detective’s role reminds us, ‘be careful what you wish for’. One wishes he had left well alone, but the tragic history of Alan Turing is now well-known, and in 2009 the British Prime Minister made an official public apology for “the appalling way he was treated”. Then in December 2013 the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon.

An Asperger’s case perhaps, but tough withal, and the occasional clips of him running reflect reality. He was even said to have jogged part of the way to London for meetings, and Benedict Cumberbatch brought an intense intelligence to the role of this extraordinary man, who was far more than a straightforward mathematician. Among other stars, Keira Knightly gave a beautiful portrayal of emotional and mathematical intelligence as Joan Clarke, as did Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander. Here were young people without obvious pretentions, and as one enduring line in the script says, “Sometimes it’s the people no-one imagines anything of, who do the things no-one can imagine”, a sentiment apparently not shared by their immediate boss, the tough Naval Commander Denniston (Charles Dance). Conflict is inevitable, but behind the whole project and its success is the charmingly subtle Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), head of MI6, a department completely unknown to anyone at the time. Yet even he could not foresee the rogue actions of a Mancunian detective (Rory Kinnear) after the war, who thought he might have a Soviet agent on his hands.

Dealing with the detective displays an example of Turing’s ‘Imitation Game’, and yes, there was a Soviet agent, but it wasn’t Turing. See Morten Tyldum’s extraordinary movie, with its brilliant screenplay by Graham Moore and glorious cinematography that brings it all to life.

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