The Imitation Game and important biopics

With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, James explores the importance of a good biopic...

Benedict Cumberbatch is Alan Turing. Benedict Cumberbatch is also the most popular Sherlock Holmes in history, the terrible and stupendous dragon Smaug in The Hobbit film adaptations and the ultimate nemesis that is Khan in the alternate-timeline that constitutes the Star Trek reboot movie cycle.

Benedict Cumberbatch is also set to become Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the hottest multi-franchise in the galaxy (several galaxies, actually) and the multifaceted pop-cultural entity magnetically attracting the most fascination and speculation right now (even more than the upcoming Star Wars sequels, which Cumberbatch has also been heavily linked with. In all likelihood, for all we know, Benedict Cumberbatch is also a Star Wars secret).

Benedict Cumberbatch is also Benedict Cumberbatch – one of the most in-demand actors alive with a cult-like fan following of film enthusiasts and devotees proudly labelling as ‘Cumberbitches’. His renown and reputation as both a performer and a public personality are so great that his name can be found in most casting rumour round-ups and his actual physical presence is rarely absent from our screens.

This is all good news for Alan Turing – the great British mathematician and scientific pioneer whose life and times are depicted in the freshly released biopic, The Imitation Game. The fact that it’s Cumberbatch in the lead role is fitting. Not only does Turing get an outstanding actor to portray him, but he’s also finally guaranteed the prominence and attention that he deserves – prominence that has long been denied him. 

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Alan Turing was arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. During World War II he led the codebreaking endeavour to crack the German Enigma machine. With his Bombe device and his colleagues at Bletchley Park, Turing successfully decrypted Nazi secret communications – a development that enabled the Allies to get the upper hand in the intractable conflict, shortened the war and saved millions of lives.

Turing also stands as an essential trailblazer in the field of computer science and artificial intelligence, his theoretical work on ‘thinking machines’ and computation paving the way for others to follow. He designed the Turing Test to determine if a machine can exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human being. We live in a digital age powered by computers because of Alan Turing and, furthermore, imagining a world in which the Enigma code wasn’t cracked throws up some very disturbing scenarios.

That’s a very brief summary of some of this historic figure’s greatest feats, but it should give you a sense of Turing’s vital importance. Still, in spite of his achievements, his story is not very well known. That’s in part due to the classified nature of his wartime activities but also in part due to his untimely fate. Charged with gross indecency for homosexual relations – because homosexuality was a crime at the time – Turing was offered the choice of prison or chemical castration. He chose the latter and ended up committing suicide in 1954, poisoning himself with cyanide. He was only 41 years old. 

The combined powers of the Official Secrets Act and the great shadow of shame have kept these details out of popular awareness. Turing is well-known within particular specialised academic spheres and a number of international universities have buildings named after him. Manchester has a memorial statue and a key ring road bearing his moniker because of his link to the city’s university. Beyond that, though, the father of computer science isn’t as familiar a figure as, say, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking. It’s quite incredible and, indeed, unjust considering the contribution to the world.

Nonetheless, awareness has been raised over the past decade or so as details of the Enigma breaking operation have been declassified. What’s more, we now live in an age where homosexuality is no longer illegal in the UK and is, in fact, no longer seen as some kind of deviant crime or indecent, abnormal way of being in mainstream, international society.

Turing’s ill-treatment has been reconsidered as both a tragedy and a travesty and the UK government’s formal apology and pardon in recent years were milestone moments. 2012 also saw the commemoration of ‘Alan Turing Year’ to mark the science hero’s 100th birthday. Altogether, Turing’s reputation is on the rise and he’s finally posthumously receiving the acclaim that eluded him in life. The arrival of The Imitation Game, however, will act as a catalyst and really bring this overlooked extraordinary individual into popular contemporary consciousness.

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So it goes in our culture, because – as common perception has it – you know you’ve ‘made it’ and are someone significant when Hollywood has made a film about you. So it is with this new American-funded, British-made feature. The fact that it’s fronted by Benedict Cumberbatch and is an excellent film all-round are beneficial bonuses that guarantee that The Imitation Game’s objective is achieved triumphantly. Alan Turing’s tale is told and audiences around the globe come to appreciate it and appreciate the true figure – and his compatriots at Bletchley Park – upon whom it is based. 

I knew very little about Alan Turing before I went into a screening of The Imitation Game a month ago. I’m pretty sure that the woman sat next to me knew even less – if anything at all – about his life and the events surrounding him, and I didn’t need to employ my Cumberbatchian Sherlock skills to work that out. Hearing her mutter aloud “oh, maybe he’s gay!” in the middle of the film suggested so and she kept on making surprised noises as if this was all completely new to her while the film rolled.

Come the closing credits she was in tears and audibly sobbing. I wasn’t at all irritated by those quiet interjections and the immersion-breaking disturbances from my neighbour on this occasion because, right there in the auditorium, I realised that something wonderful was happening. A movie was successfully entertaining, educating and affecting someone, and I was likewise going through the exact same thing (just a bit more quietly).

That’s the power of a well-made biographical film and I’m happy that The Imitation Game is one of those. Movies can bring history to life and humanise real past personalities in the eyes and minds of the audience. Viewers get a visceral feel of the times they lived in, the events they experienced and the individuals themselves as characters with motives, beliefs and feelings.

In a way, prestige ‘based on the true story’ period pics can function like augmented history books, more amped up in terms of graphic spectacle and artistically tailored to present history through a cinematic filter for an immersive audiovisual experience. By using the language of film they make history and the human subjects more relatable and accessible for modern people, some of whom may have an aversion to history books and documentaries.

The Imitation Game takes full, effective advantage of the medium and thanks to several excellent performances, Graham Moore’s tight screenplay and Mortem Tyldum’s deft direction the movie manages to simultaneously be an entertaining thriller, an intriguing character study and an enlightening exploration of true events.

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Through montage we are taken back and forth through the key moments of Turing’s life – his formative boarding school days, his World War II work and his post-war indecency conviction – gradually decrypting an enigmatic man and coming to discover the full picture by the time the end titles.

Of course, The Imitation Game isn’t a complete carbon copy of true history or a blow-by-blow, absolutely accurate chronicle. We’re in the realms of blockbuster biopic moviemaking and we’re playing, ironically enough, an imitation game – making an artificial representation. The result is that there are distortions as all involved seek to present history through a lens, bending their source material to the medium.

Even if The Imitation Game doesn’t commit any major history crimes it still needs to play around with Turing’s story to make it more cinematic. There are omissions and things are condensed and spliced around the montages sequence to fit within the two-hour runtime. Extra dramatic conflict and ‘Hollywood touches’ – most notably, rom-com style flourishes in Turing’s platonic relationship with fellow codebreaker and fiancée Joan Clarke – are integrated into a narrative which hits on the expected feel-good biography beats.

Yet, in spite of that, The Imitation Game isn’t a generic by-the-numbers biopic, and – like its hero – it makes some unorthodox moves and eccentric plays to achieve its goals. It’s full of surprises and quirk, and that makes it all the more compelling and worthy as a biographical film.

Movies of this genre are easy to target and dismiss as cynical exercises designed to dangle as ‘Oscar Bait’ and yield a huge box office off the back of a famous name. Should anyone level those accusations at The Imitation Game, I’d immediately leap to the defence of the picture even if, on a superficial level, it may seem to have ‘obvious hit’ written all over it. For a start, it’s about a kooky super-genius fighting Nazis. Even more crucially, it’s got a starry cast boasting the likes of Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Keira Knightley and they’re all in 40s period costume and evoking World War II nostalgia. And of course we’ve got that man Benedict Cumberbatch front and centre, playing another “odd duck”.

Even so, there’s truth in director Morten Tyldum’s assessment that “it’s a movie about a gay mathematician in the 40s. It’s not really a crowd-pleasing movie”. For me at least, that statement really clarifies just what makes the best biopics both in terms of quality as movies and value as educational documents.

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The portraits of people who were outsiders, outcasts, oddballs or unsung heroes are the most interesting ones and make for the greatest films – especially when they’re crafted by distinctive directors with a unique auteur eye. (The ultimate maestro in this arena being Martin Scorsese, and I raise you Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Aviator, Hugo and The Wolf Of Wall Street as emphatic evidence.)

If we’re talking about headline-grabbing strategies and pitches designed to pull a crowd, biopics focusing on the most famous people in recent history are the ones to commission. I think it’s pretty telling, however, that recent flicks about Diana, Princess of Wales and Grace Kelly have proven to be huge box office bombs while more unlikely film biographies soar commercially and critically.

Consider recent Awards Season victors and you find flicks like Argo, 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club claiming the prizes and drawing the greatest praise. These are films centred round remarkable figures from the past whose stories haven’t been widely told, for a variety of reasons. These perhaps unusual subjects have also undoubtedly benefitted from brilliant performances and the tremendous vision of highly-skilled filmmakers. Even so, considered as raw subject matter, they are far more intriguing than the prospect of another pop biography portraying familiar tales of infamous celebrities, essayed by a possibly even more famous actor made-up to look like a waxwork. (Think Meryl Streep and The Iron Lady and you may get what I mean.) 

I’d even contend that 2010 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech – a film about a British royal – works as character study which creatively tackles a flashpoint moment in its subject’s life rather than reel out his ‘greatest hits’. I’d also argue that The King’s Speech is as much a biopic of Lionel Logue – an unsung hero – than it is about King Bertie who himself is pitched as a loser protagonist in what is essentially a conventional sport movie without sport.

(I’m aware that I may be showing my prejudices here and would like to apologise for more prejudices because prejudice isn’t really a cool thing to carry with you. I’m just not really interested in seeing films about well-known aristocrats, political leaders and pop stars. I am, however, all in for studies of disadvantaged underdogs, eccentric geniuses, underappreciated artists and antisocial criminals.)

Wonderful things can happen when moviemakers do some digging, aim their cameras on the unseen areas of history and drag fascinating overlooked figures into the spotlight. Incredible true stories are brought to the attention of wide audiences and, perhaps even more importantly, the achievements of some great-albeit-unappreciated human beings enter the modern mainstream consciousness.

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Schindler’s List is perhaps the most powerful example – Steven Spielberg’s sombre masterwork portraying the stark atrocity of Nazi Germany and simultaneously celebrating a hitherto quite unknown man who saved over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. A more recent resonant case study would be Pride, even though it’s more of a collective biography. The world now knows the extraordinary story of the unlikely alliance between an embattled Welsh community and the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners Group during the Miners’ Strike. That never would have happened had the film not been made and, what’s more, Pride reminds us about the past while expressing timeless humanitarian sentiments that are very relevant in the here and now.

The good news is that these moves aren’t isolated anomalies and looking around the movie scene I see more and more excellent biopics bringing unusual subjects to the screen in intriguing fashion. Consider, for instance, Steven Soderbergh’s dark Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra – the antithesis of the generic star musician eulogy. As for unorthodox sporting biopics, how about Moneyball which chronicled baseball general manager Billy Beane’s business and made the niche world of baseball management and statistics engaging for a wide audience?

Beyond Hollywood, casting eyes towards Asia, when movies like Ip Man and The Grandmaster – both biopics of Bruce Lee’s teacher, the Wing Chun master Ip Man – cross over a global audience comes to comprehend important figures and key events of other cultures. Tatsumi – the eponymous study of the Japanese manga artist – also stands out as a creative entry to genre, animated as it is in the manga artist’s style and interweaved with adaptations of some of his stories.

Those are just a few off the top of my head and I hope they serve as a decent sample of just how diverse and creative the biographical film format can be, and also their value as educational works. The Imitation Game is definitely one such exemplary biopic performing very worthwhile work. It’s a fitting tribute and the just treatment that Alan Turing deserves.

James Clayton is also going to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch when the time comes to turn his life, ordeals and really, really important work into a feature-length motion picture. 

You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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