TIFF: Cracking the Code of ‘The Imitation Game’ (INTERVIEW)

We caught up with director Morten Tyldum and cast members Allen Leech and Matthew Goode at the Toronto Film Festival to chat about "The Imitation Game," the new biopic about the brilliant British mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing.
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The Imitation Game Photo

The cast of "The Imitation Game": Benedict Cumberbatch (center) as Alan Turing and (from left) Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, and Allen Leech. (Photo: TIFF)

Before the publication of Andrew Hodges’ groundbreaking 1983 biography—Alan Turing: The Enigma—Turing, a British mathematician who played a crucial role in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma ciphers during World War II and laid the groundwork for modern notions of artificial intelligence, was little known outside of scientific circles. Hodges’ revelatory account detailed how a man who should have been a national hero (if much of his work hadn’t remained classified) became reviled because of his homosexuality, and added another layer of complexity to a chronicle of a life that had been unjustly forgotten. Found guilty of the offense of “gross indecency” and sentenced by a judge to inhumane “chemical castration,” Turing committed suicide in 1954. National shame over his fate is reflected in former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology for Turing’s sentence in 2009 and Queen Elizabeth’s posthumous 2013 “pardon.”

The lives of brilliant scientists have always appealed to moviemakers eager to produce biopics that meld entertainment with edification. The Imitation Game, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s tribute to Turing, which features a bravura performance by Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, is part of a long tradition of biopics that includes Greer Garson fiddling with test tubes in Mervyn Le Roy’s Marie Curie (1943) and Ron Howard’s hugely popular paean to the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Tyldum is well aware that biographical films must both strive for faithfulness and engage in “creative license” to woo an audience. When I asked him about the delicate task of balancing historical accuracy with commercial filmmaking’s penchant for biographical flights of fancy, he said: “We took facts very seriously. The most serious problem doing biography is the matter of time because you have to shape events into a narrative of two hours; you have to create a dramatic arc. That can be a challenge. I read that John Nash, the hero of A Beautiful Mind, became aware of his sickness over a 10-year period. But the filmmakers had to turn this into a moment. It was the same with us. You have to have a Eureka moment.”

It’s obvious that Tyldum immersed himself in Turing’s life and lore and made a sincere effort to recreate Bletchley Park, the site where Turing and his team worked tirelessly to decipher Enigma during the 1940s. Still, slightly over a year before The Imitation Game unspooled at TIFF, Andrew Hodges got wind of potential fictional embellishments planned by the filmmakers and politely expressed his dissatisfaction. According to Tyldum, “Hodges didn’t read the script. He had heard rumors about the script. I think he’s reassessed this because he thought we would turn Turing’s friendship with Joan Clarke into a heterosexual relationship. That’s not at all true and I think we depict things very much the way they were. They were very close. First she was a clerk, because she was not allowed to be a code breaker because she was a woman. His initial critique was silly, based on the fact that Keira [Knightley], who plays Joan, is a beautiful woman and Joan wasn’t.”

“[The Imitation Game] is a tribute to being different. This man was so ahead of his time. That’s why he became an outsider. He never really fit in because his brain worked differently from other people. And this is something that we should celebrate.” − director Morten Tyldum

Hodges was also irked by rumors that John Cairncross (played in the film by Allen Leech), a cryptographer recruited to work at Bletchley, and subsequently unmasked as a spy for the Soviet Union, was to be depicted as a colleague of Turing’s. For what it’s worth, Cairncross doesn’t even make a cameo appearance in Hodges’ biography. Nevertheless, Tyldum explains that, although Turing and Cairncross were in different working groups, “both teams often worked together. We simplified this to make the story clearer. He was at Bletchley and there was so much going on. The fact is that there was this mathematician with bad social skills who ended up at Bletchley because he loved puzzles and was in the middle of all of this espionage. It was important for us to tell that. There’s a lot we don’t know. Did MI6 know about Cairncross and use him? While he was called as a spy, he was never prosecuted. And he wasn’t a very good spy. We wanted to play into that.”

Benedict Cumberbatch Photo

Cumberbatch was Morten Tyldum's first choice to play Turing because the director said: "It’s not every actor who can play a genius." (Photo: TIFF) 

Tyldum’s actors also proved diligent in researching their roles. Allen Leech, best known in the United States for his role as Tom on Downton Abbey, told me that he read John Cairncross’s memoir to prepare for his role. Leech said that he found Cairncross “a fascinating character." 

"He distanced himself from the Cambridge spies. He was always pinned as one of them, but that’s not true," said Leech. "He was given the highest honor of the Soviet Union—the Red Star. There was one battle where his information led to a whole German battalion being destroyed…We’ll never know how well he knew Turing because of all of the information that’s been destroyed. Their paths definitely crossed. They would have met since Cairncross was a linguist and a cryptographer.”

Similarly, Matthew Goode, interviewed in tandem with Leech and known to American audiences for his role as Finn Polmar on CBS’s The Good Wife, seemed genuinely pleased to play Hugh Alexander, the affable chess champion who initially sparred with Turing, but became a lifelong friend of the introverted mathematician. Goode says of his character:  “. . .Hugh was brought in as the leader of the group and then replaced by Turing, who wrote to Winston Churchill to say that he should really be in charge. Winston Churchill came back and said ‘Yes, maybe you should be.’ It wasn’t just that Hugh wasn’t any longer captain of the football team. It must have been enormously frustrating.”

Although it would be naïve at this juncture in cinematic history to object to the inevitable historical tweaking and melodramatic flourishes that pepper most mainstream biopics, it’s also difficult not to find screenwriter Graham Moore’s version of Turing’s life overly genteel. As Scott Foundas writes in his Variety review, “Nothing is too heavily encrypted in The Imitation Game, a veddy British biopic of prodigal mathematician and WWII codebreaker Alan Turing, rendered in such unerringly tasteful, Masterpiece Theatre-ish fashion that every one of Turing’s professional triumphs and personal tragedies arrives right on schedule and with nary a hair out of place.”

Morten Tyldum Photo

Morten Tyldum on the red carpet for the movie's Toronto Film Festival screening. (Photo: TIFF)

Yet, for Tyldum, The Imitation Game is subversive because “it’s a tribute to being different. This man was so ahead of his time. That’s why he became an outsider. He never really fit in because his brain worked differently from other people. And this is something that we should celebrate.”

It’s also clear that we should celebrate Benedict Cumberbatch’s remarkable turn as the eccentric, but ultimately endearing, Turing. “Benedict was the first actor I thought of,” admits Tyldum. “He wasn’t that well-known in the U.S. − it was before Star Trek − but I thought he was the only one who could do this. It’s not every actor who can play a genius. Everyone was afraid that it would be too similar to Sherlock, but it’s very, very different. It’s so nuanced − it’s the balance between strength and arrogance.

The Imitation Game is schedule to hits theaters in the U.S. on November 21.