The Imitation Game


The first things to say about this film is that it is well worth seeing, profoundly moving and (in general) very well acted.

The second is that it gets to be this way by rather playing with the facts.

I am no Turing expert – I’ve read On Computable Numbers (via the quite brilliant The Annotated Turing), Computing Machinery and Intelligence and listened to the audio book of Alan Turing: The Enigma (now subtitled “the book that inspired the film The Imitation Game”) but I know enough to doubt that there really was a late-night post-boozing moment when the bombe machine started to work (this appears to be an attempt to lump the success of the bombe and Turing’s insight into German naval codes into one gloriously cinematic moment) and I certainly know that Turing did not spend – as the film implies if not explicitly states – the whole of the war at Bletchley Park.


And the film does Turing’s co-workers a great dis-service when it implies that Turing alone wrote to Churchill and that Turing then used the letter’s success to dominate his co-workers. The letter was written collectively and,  what is more, after the first bombes were working, not as a device to get a bombe built.


Nor is the film fair on Turing in the sense that he is portrayed as – and the title implies he was adept at – hiding his sexuality. If anything it was Turing’s unwillingness to hide that caused him so much trouble. He was not ashamed to be gay (a word he used) even if some simulation just might have helped him dodge his indecency conviction.


No matter, though, the spirit of the film is correct and Cumberbatch is excellent in the lead role. Though it was Keira Knightly playing Joan Clarke who, if anything, impressed me more (though her accent seemed to swing back and forth between very posh and modern classlessness). Perhaps that is because Joan is now rather more of an enigma than Alan.


Reading this morning’s papers about the film it was implied that Turing’s work was not given due credit until recently because he was gay. I am not sure that is true.


We should not really expect the majority of the public to have heard of the “Church-Turing thesis” or to have grasped the basics of a Turing Machine, though the increased pervasiveness of computing devices does mean that Turing’s name as a key founder of the theoretical basis of electronic computing has become more widely known regardless of attitudes towards homosexuality. The Ultra decryption effort was kept hidden until the late 70s and the full details took some time to come out, but the ACM‘s Turing Award – the highest that a computer scientist could hope for, has been in existence since 1966: computer science did not disavow him.


But his story is a reminder of how bigotry damaged so many lives – even those to whom we owe so much.