Films about scientists are a rare occurrence and films about mathematicians are even rarer; it’s not hard to see why.
For every Good Will Hunting, there are many more films that are quite unbearable to view, such as the vastly overrated A Beautiful Mind about the life of John Nash. But the Imitation Game is a surprisingly well-made take on the life of the father of computer science, Alan Turing.
Predictably the film was lacking in the concrete mathematics, with only vague references to how exactly the Enigma machine worked, or how Turing’s machine was able to crack the code. The film can’t be faulted too much for such an absence as it’s always proved to be rather a tricky thing to show on screen.
Portraying the life of a person in love with the beauty of mathematics is surely difficult enough without also accurately portraying the maths behind it. The film does just about enough (though it could probably have tried a little harder) to pique the interest of those who would otherwise have been unaware of Turing’s work.
One suspects that the release of the film will lead to many more visits to Bletchley Park, where the code-breaking was done, and that can only be a good thing.
There is often a temptation with biopics to compare the film’s adaptation with the real life figure’s story, and it’s impossible not to do so here. Benedict Cumberbatch is well cast as the film’s Turing character. The inaccuracies and artistic embellishments, such as Joan Clarke’s appointment by way of her achievements at crossword puzzles (she was in fact chosen because of her accomplishments at university) and Turing’s reclusiveness and implied autistic tendencies (while in real life he is known to have been quite friendly and no evidence exists that he was autistic), are quite numerous for those who insist on looking out for them.
However the movie does not claim to be a documentary and it would be unfair to judge the film’s merits on the basis of these uses of artistic licence.
As ever with films set during war, in particular the Second World War, the filmmakers can’t resist trying to arouse a sense of national pride, in Turing’s achievements if not the whole British war effort. It is an odd addition to the film and it appears all the more laughable when the film also shows the way the British state treated Turing after the war.
Turing’s homosexuality, a subject of some criticism of the film by those who felt it was too downplayed, is dealt with sparingly. At a time, however, when homosexuality was a criminal offence in this country, this is probably reflective of the way Turing himself saw his sexuality. There was no evidence that he was ever ashamed of his sexuality. Overall, the film probably accurately reflects the matter-of-fact way in which Turing himself saw it, as something that was part of who he was but very much part of his private life.
The film couldn’t help but continue the hackneyed tradition of portraying scientists as odd loners whose genius no-one around them can understand - something that is in general as untrue for most geniuses as it was in fact for Alan Turing.
But it is a portrayal charming enough that it can be regarded as a fitting tribute of sorts to one of the twentieth century’s most enduring mathematical figures.