“He’s the only person who had the power to forgive, in my mind, and he can’t. Because we destroyed him.”
That’s Benedict Cumberbatch on stage at the 92Y Sunday evening, responding to an audience question about the Queen’s 2013 pardon of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing and whether or not it was “too little, too late.”
The Imitation Game is a fictionalized account of a victory that became a deep national shame. And Benedict is earning Oscar buzz for his portrayal of a brilliant man whose work saved millions of lives before institutionalized homophobia and fear took his legacy and his life. “His photo should be on the covers of textbooks,” Benedict told us. “Not just Maths, but History books.” It’s not, though. And most students won’t hear from their teachers how Alan Turing’s brilliance managed to crack the Nazi’s code and cut the war short by at least two years. Or how the “universal machines” he envisioned and built would become commonly known as “computers.” I first heard of Turing on a This American Life episode that aired right around the famously tardy pardon of his conviction for “indecency,” and like Cumberbatch, I was thunderstuck by the fact that his was not a household name. An “aching need to serve his legacy,” Benedict called the draw he felt to the project. All that Oscar stuff is a bonus.
The screenplay for The Imitation Game was a first time feature by screenwriter Graham Moore and sat on the top of the famous “Black List” – an industry-voted survey of the most promising undeveloped scripts out there. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) joined the newbie writer to make up an unlikely team to churn out a Best Picture frontrunner. Soon after, Benedict was on board or, in his words, “On board with the idea of being on board.” His Skype chat with Tyldum was followed by an in-person meeting, and soon enough, director and star were in “a beautiful marriage, really.” Don’t say “marriage” in front of your fans yet, Ben. We’re still adjusting. (But seriously, mazel.)
The film is a pretty accessible one – its boldness is focused on portraying Turing as he was, without being particularly concerned that the audience will like him. The story is told, as moderator Annette Insdorf described, “in concentric circles.” Three eras of Turing’s life are layered on top of each other and we move between them steadily. In reverse chronological order, they are: his arrest and interrogation in 1951; his application and acceptance into MI6 and his work at Bletchley Park; and finally, a formative year at school with his best and only friend Christopher. The title of this post is the first line in the film – it’s Turing speaking to his interrogator – and the narration is snippets from their interview. “I have an aesthetic nervousness about voiceovers,” Benedict told us. And I’m with him – more often than not, they are evidence of laziness. Very rarely, they’re Goodfellas. Benedict softened to this one because it’s used sparingly, and because it’s actually dialogue in disguise.
Beyond the jumps in time, character takes precedence over fancy filmmaker showboating. Benedict credits Tyldum’s steady hand for saving the film “from potential cliches.” In other hands, Turing’s story could have been milked for melodrama. Instead, the director lets the twists and turns of his life dictate The Imitation Game‘s shifts in genre. Benedict has significant experience portraying socially awkward genius; some of his lines in this film could fit comfortably into a Sherlock script. There’s a lot of humor in the movie and even in Turing himself. Early on, he meets with Commander Denniston (Charles Dance – what up, Tywin Lannister?), the old-school military heavy of the piece, for the most disastrous interview that’s ever resulted in an offer. You can’t tell where his inability to read social cues ends and his delight in throwing this blowhard off-base begins. Turing has difficulty working in a team (his first successful project is to go above Denniston’s head to Winston Churchill and get his superior fired), and his co-workers react to him with a mixture of annoyance, amusement and fear. One of my favorite scenes involves Turing trying to make nice with Hugh (Matthew Goode – still fine), John (Allen Leech – still Branson), and Peter (Matthew Beard) by bringing them apples, explaining why he’s bringing them apples, and then telling them a joke he’d memorized. They come to be very protective of him and their support ensures that he can continue his work to solve the Germans’ Enigma machine. And Mark Strong steals all his scenes as Stewart Menzies, a spy who clearly delights in his man-of-mystery persona. On the other hand, The Imitation Game is a thriller. Strong’s character tells Turing early on that British soldiers are dying at a rate of three per the length of their short conversation and that urgency persists through the rest of the film. Turing describes the Bletchley project as a war against the passage of time rather than a war against the enemy. The Germans change the settings on their encoder each day, so every midnight means that the previous day’s work is essentially meaningless. If I remember correctly, we don’t see the face of a single German soldier throughout the movie. But see an abundance of clock faces and ticking hands.
Platonic though it is, the richest central relationship of the movie is the one between Turing and Joan Clarke, a mathematics student who served as the only female codebreaker in MI6 and my new life hero. Let it never be said that I don’t change my mind. It took me years to get all the fuss about Keira Knightley, and I still think she used to confuse looking petulant with acting. But between this and her role in Begin Again, she has me eating crow this year. There’s a lack of vanity and self-consciousness in her acting, and I think aging out of the ingenue category has a lot to do with it. It’s Joan who convinces Turing that he’s made stronger by having allies. And it’s Joan who completely accepts his otherness. One of the benefits of his overly analytic mind is that he doesn’t see hers – or at least why her gender should have any effect on what she can accomplish. They understand each other and they make each other better. I wish we’d had a chance to hear Benedict talk about how he and Keira found that relationship, but…you’ll see.
Before I tell you more about the Q&A, I have to mention Alex Lawther, the young actor who played Alan Turing during his school days. Benedict called him “the real discovery” of the film and it’s a phenomenal performance. He doesn’t look particularly like Benedict Cumberbatch (TV Mouse Kelly: “No one looks like Benedict Cumberbatch), but he mimics him like a champ. In emotional moments (and trust me, he’s got emotional moments…Turing doesn’t name his machine after Christopher for nothing), Lawther’s mouth trembles and works, like he’s tasting every bit of heartbreak and disappointment that’s coming for him.
Unfortunately, the experience of seeing this work and hearing the artist talk about it afterwards was marred by some brazen rudeness by the patrons of the 92nd Street Y. As Benedict and the moderator were speaking, droves of audience members had no qualms about loudly collecting their things, crawling over their neighbors, and making their way to the exits. The house staff did nothing to curb this behavior or to minimize its effect on other patrons. I had been concerned that my fellow Cumberbitches (I’m owning that term, deal with it) would react to him in a way that was…inappropriate to the setting. However, fans were perfectly behaved and engaged. Many of their hands were still raised with questions when the discussion was abruptly cut short. The situation was so bad that Benedict himself made a self-deprecating comment. I sent a lengthy email to the venue’s customer service email (because of course I did) and got a reply that thanked me for my feedback and hoped I’d come again soon. I guess this is how we treat people now. But I don’t want to end this post on a massive downer, so here…look upon him again:
Tidbits from the Q&A:
- Benedict started to explain, in detail, the cell mutations that Turing was studying at the time of his death and must have seen the overwhelmed looks on our faces: “I’ll keep it simple, because trust me, I am quite simple.”
- Eddie Redmayne came up, as Benedict also played Stephen Hawking once upon a time. He had nothing but praise for the actor he described as a dear friend. “Everything he does is profoundly investigated and realized.”
- He talked about feminism for a while and I may have cried tears of joy.
- Moderator: *mentions that screenwriter is also a novelist who wrote a book called The Sherlockian.*
Benedict: “Yeaaaaaaaah….” (He was just sheepish because he hadn’t read it yet.)
- Benedict sees this film not just as a biopic, but “something we can carry forward.” Alan Turing was broken down by “the very democracy he had saved,” thanks to judgement and fear mongering. And those concepts have yet to go out of style. However: “Prejudice in any form cannot be excused.”
Are you looking forward to The Imitation Game, readers? And what are we gonna do if Ben wins an Oscar?