Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Speak up for the people who have no voice,
for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
Stand up for the poor and destitute!
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you…
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 7:7 & 19:30
The first English-language film by director Norwegian Morton Tyldum explores the theme of secrecy as well as championing the cause of the despised outsider. Mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) embodied both, forced to keep secret his work heading up the British team working to break the Germans’ Enigma codes during World War II, and keeping even more secret his homosexuality. In that era, Britain still languished amongst all the misconceptions and prejudice that had sent to prison the great playwright Oscar Wilde in 1895. Such laws still could be enforced during Turing’s lifetime.
Graham Moore’s script, adapted from Andrew Hodges’ The Enigma, skillfully skips back and forth from the early 1950s when Turing was in police custody to the 1940’s war period and the late 1920s when at a boy’s boarding school he was bullied for being weird and different. The 1952 interrogation by a policeman named Nock (Rory Kinnear) who comes to believe Turing is a Soviet spy serves as a framing device.
As a picked-on student at boarding school, Turing (well played by the young Alex Lawther) developed strong feelings for the only student who befriended him, Christopher (Jack Bannon). According to the film, this student launched the boy on the path of code breaker by giving him a book on codes and ciphers. Turing observes that cryptic messages resemble human speech in which people say one thing but intend something else. The theme of secrecy is also introduced when Turing, disappointed when Christopher does not return after a two-week holiday break, is told by the headmaster that the boy has died. He had suffered from a fatal illness but never let his friend in on it.
In 1939, at the outbreak of World War Two, the by-the-book Royal Navy Commander (Charles Dance) very reluctantly hires Turing to join a team of code breakers. He does not like the man’s arrogance and awkward manners, but the mathematician had revealed that he already knew of the Enigma project. He tells the team that they are losing the war, and thus it is vital that they break the German code. Britain stands alone against Hitler’s forces that have taken over most of Europe. Low on armaments, the nation faces starvation, the powerful U-boat fleet intercepting and sinking many of the ships bearing food and supplies from the still neutral US.
Bletchley Park, once a radio manufacturing facility, is now home to the Government Code and Cypher School. Secrecy is the watchword, M16 agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) warning that if even a word about the project is breathed, the person will be executed. They have a German cryptograph machine smuggled out of Berlin, but this is of little use without knowing the settings. Each morning at 6 A.M. messages are intercepted, and at midnight the Germans change the settings, so the team has just 18 hours to translate a message. According to the experts, Enigma has 159 million million million possible configurations, meaning it would take decades to break the code by the traditional methods. (Those extra “millions” are not typos!)
Just as Turing gets off to a bad start with the Commander, so by his arrogance he isolates himself from his fellow cryptologists that include Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), John Cairncross (Alan Leech), and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), the latter a charismatic chess player who at first heads the group. He tells the Commander that he cannot work as a team member, that the others “would slow me down.” When the Commander becomes fed up with Turing’s anti-social behavior, he fires him. Turing writes directly to PM Winston Churchill. He must have been better as a letter writer than as a speaker, because he not only is re-instated, he is appointed the head of the team, much to the annoyance of all.
Turing believes that it will take a machine, not individual humans, to break the code. He works tirelessly to concoct a large electro-mechanical device that we recognize as the forerunner of the room-sized computers, such as UNIVAC. Along the way he recruits puzzle wizard Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), probably the only person nearly his equal intellectually. She is not allowed to work directly with the men because of the patriarchal views of her parents, so he devises the ruse of her working and living with a group of other women as a clerk.
Joan proves to be not only helpful in the deciphering work, but also as a friend and sustainer of his spirit. She advises him to reach out to the other team members—Hugh at one point had tried to smash the machine—because everyone was needed if they were to succeed. Turing starts by arriving at work with apples for his colleagues and even trying to tell a joke. Later Hugh comes to Turing with the suggestion that if he changes the wiring on the disks will operate 500 times faster. Still after two years of failure to decode a single Nazi message, the supervisors decide to dismantle the machine, which Turing has named “Christopher”. (Remember the name of his beloved classmate?)
By the time the Commander and Menzies come to take over the machine, we see that Turing has won his colleagues over to his side. When told he is fired, each of his colleagues announces that he too will quit. The superiors back down, the Commander giving them one month to make the machine work, or else. How they make their breakthrough makes a thrilling story, with still another threat to the completion of their work being that M16 has learned that one of them is a Soviet spy. Interestingly, Matthew 7:7 is a part of how the identity of the spy is revealed. Turing, of course, is the first suspect, this subplot later becoming complicated by Joan being dragged into it and a struggle between Turing and Menzies.
The code, of course, is broken, but this also immediately places them in a wrenching moral dilemma. They learn that a German “wolf pack” is about to attack a huge passenger convoy. They know the exact position of the Nazi subs waiting to launch their torpedoes, but Alan points out that if the Allies act on the information, the Germans will know that their code has been broken and will change the machine so that all their work will be for nothing. Their debate is ended when Turing prevents Hugh from telephoning the information to their superiors. Insisting that they must keep secret their knowledge, Turing can only apologize to the stricken Peter. The argument has been more than academic in that Peter has a brother aboard one of the ships.
This playing God with the lives of others persisted throughout the war, and yet, we are told, by being able to decipher the Nazi code, the Allies shortened the War by at least two years and saved upwards of 14 million lives. The Germans, believing it impossible to decipher it, never changed the code.
The relationship between Turing and Joan is beautifully depicted in the film. For a brief period they become engaged, but Turing decides to reveal his secret to her. She is not perturbed that he is a homosexual, telling him she knew that he was different. Just as he had passed on to her Christopher’s words encouraging him (she too had faced misunderstanding and prejudice because of her sex), she now says to him, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
This superb film reminds me a bit of Unbroken in that it passes over too quickly the last part of Turing’s tragic life. He is working to develop his machine when the police discover that he is a homosexual and arrest him. Found guilty, he is given the choice of prison or a treatment of female hormones that in effect will chemically castrate him. Wanting to continue his work, he accepts the latter. It is during the physical and mental torment of this period that Joan, having read about his trial in the newspapers, visits him again. She reports on her marriage and says that she would have testified on his behalf had she known. She suggests that they work a crossword puzzle, but he is now unable to manage. Although she encourages him by saying, “The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t [normal]”, it is not enough, and he later eats part of a cyanamide-laced apple. What a way to treat a man who helped shorten the war and saved millions of lives! The film does note that Queen Elizabeth II eventually did pardon him, but far too late to be of help to him.
The film is a good one for youth to watch and discuss. Star Beneditct Cumberbatch, who deserves an Oscar nomination, gives a good reason for this when he stated at the European Premiere of the film at the London Film Festival, “If any young person’s ever felt like they aren’t quite sure who they are, or aren’t allowed to express themselves the way they’d like to express themselves, if they’ve ever felt bullied by what they feel is the normal majority or any kind of thing that makes them feel an outsider, then this is definitely a film for them because it’s about a hero for them.”
(Quoted in IMDb’s Trivia Section)
Note: The film gives no credit to the Polish team that during the 1930s developed a machine to decode German Enigma messages. Just before the outbreak of war, British and French agents met near Warsaw with the Poles, as later did Turing himself. For the BBC News article detailing this go to http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28167071.
This review, with a set of questions for discussion, is in the Jan. 2014 issue of Visual Parables.