I cannot recall why I gave this 2014 a miss when it was shown in the cinemas. Perhaps I had thought it was for mathematicians or computer geeks? Only when I watched it on DVD last night that I realised it is a historical drama spy-thriller based on a book based on a true story: “Alan Turing, the Enigma” by Andrew Hodges.
The movie opens in Manchester in 1952, when secret service MI6 investigates into a break-in at mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing’s (Benedice Cumberbatch) home to investigate a break-in, which he denied.
At this point, the movie takes us back to 1928, when Turing was a teenager in boarding school. Young Turing (Alex Lawther) was often bullied because he was different.
A classmate, Christopher Morcom ( Jack Dannon) came to his aid and they struck up a friendship. He also told Turing that “sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine” when Turing confessed that he did not understand how codes and ciphers are different from talking as they are “messages that every one can see but no one knows what they mean. People don’t say what they mean but expect you to understand what they mean.” Christopher’s words would be quoted by Turing and then Joan Clarke in later parts of the movie.
The movie moves back to London in 1940. This is when Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) comes into the picture. She had earned a double first in mathematics but wasn’t granted the opportunity to work at the university so she answered Turing’s advertisement for a job in his team. The team also comprised Hugh (Matthew Goode), Peter (Matthew Beard) and John (Allen Leech). One of them turned out to be a Soviet spy deliberately planted by Commander Dennison (Charles Dance).
We also learn that Turing named his machine “Christopher”; it is a digital computer with an electrical brain. The name is that of his first crush, who died of tuberculosis during one of the term breaks at home.
We’ve known from early on that Turing was different, but his one other secret, which eventually cost him his life, was that he was a homosexual. He was arrested for “gross indecency” under British law and, instead of the two-year prison, he accepted hormonal therapy. He committed suicide one year into therapy by cyanide poisoning, aged 41.
Other than the stunts, visual and special effects, there are many juxtapositions of archieval footages which lend authenticity. Turing is a hero for people who feel different. Many intellectual people are odd. He had the ability to look at questions in a way that other people may not look at them, which allowed him to come up with answers.
Turing was incredibly literal-minded. He did not know how to work with people, to get along with people, and was not someone who saw the value of working on a team. Joan Clarke did. Her relationship with Turing was one of friendship and love. He was her best friend. She taught him that he needed the team’s help and he learned through her that in order to be the best, he had to be with other people and be part of something whole.
Turing was a non-conformist with an extraordinary brain. He believed in technology’s ability to make lives better, and thought that machines may one day replace humans.
It is a tragic irony that the man who was the most responsible, in many ways, for salvaging democracy from the clutches of fascism was rewarded by the government and his democracy by being persecuted for his sexuality. Weekly chemical castration (estrogen injections) knocked his body and his mind sideways and he couldn’t function. It is appalling.
Joan Clarke represents the femisist heroine. She refuses to accept the social definitions placed on her. It shows that the plight of the outsider is strongly universal.
The music score (except for a couple of songs) is entirely composed by Alexandre Desplat. It is a rare composition, like how there would be several pianos with the orchestra (the London Symphony Orchestra) to depict the activity of the brain, when it goes very fast, when it is ahead or when it has become stiff. For example, during calculations, during the solitary running scenes, to show excitement and obsession, conveying the state of mind and also the suspense.
This war thriller is also a romance. Most of all, it is about celebrating people with differences.