We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields. But which are the best ones to start with?

– Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (1950)

In the very first line of Alan Turing’s seminal paper, he asks the question, “Can machines think?” To solve such a problem, he proposes the following thought experiment: suppose an interrogator and a human subject are placed in two separate rooms, but able to communicate. The role of the interrogator is to surmise the identity of the subject (an intermediary may or may not be included to aid in this process) by posing questions to the subject – a relatively straightforward enterprise. Now suppose that a machine takes the part of the subject: will the interrogator now be able to correctly discern that the subject is no longer a human, or is the machine capable of assuming the place of a human subject without disrupting the interrogator’s identification process? The imitation game, as Turing called it, has since been considered a benchmark proposition and holy grail of attainment in the domains of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and a plethora of related fields. As much as it is a scientific question, it is also a philosophical one, and one that is at the heart of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. The eponymous game is not only a scientific endeavour, but one that questions the very nature of humanity. You may be able to discern from my blog that questions of science, humanity, and their intersection – especially in film – are of deepest significance to me, and The Imitation Game balances all three with equal weight in a way that few films have done so previously. While the themes of embracing differences to achieve triumph is made somewhat heavy-handedly, the more powerful themes of Turing’s original conception of the imitation game as both a scientific and philosophical question are interleaved more subtly, elevating the film above mere awards bait to a genuinely moving account of scientific genius and humanity.

In the hands of any other director, this film could have easily been standard biopic fare, but Tyldum approaches the film intelligently and intuitively, if not slightly uninspired. Drawing on action from three different time periods – Turing as a boy in school, during his time at Bletchley, and the post-war era – Tyldum creates a sense of not only what happened, but the circumstances under which they occurred; a confluence of events that paint a particular picture of the man at the centre of it, Alan Turing himself. The use of  newsreel snippets and a stylised reenactments are a particularly ingenious touch, making the film seem more like a documentary, with the consequences of war ever present. Scenes of the underground shelters and bombed-out London-scapes are sobering reminders that while isolated Bletchley may have seemed a world apart from the war, its ultimate intention was to work towards its dissolution; Tyldum takes great care to remind us of the broader perspective. There is particularly beautiful care paid to the set and production design, with cogs and wheels and all manner of scientific instruments in artfully authentic disarray, the pinnacle of which is the codebreaking machine itself, a monolithic thing of rotaries and dials befitting the finest spy film (no coincidence there, as production designer Maria Djurkovic also worked on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

Although the film boasts an impressive supporting cast, all more than adequate in their respective roles, particularly Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, there is no shadow of a doubt that it belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing. He does not simply act as Alan Turing, he becomes Alan Turing. To call it wholly involving and mesmerising is a monumental understatement, especially because it is not a particularly showy performance; Cumberbatch captures Turing in his quiet moments of being, but no less brimming with intensity, and always able to transcend a sometimes clichéd script. Cumberbatch is known for his fierce dedication to depicting the smallest of detail and subtlety in his performance, and Turing may yet be his greatest showcase yet: a masterclass in focus, precision, and emoting the deepest of emotions with the slightest of movements: the barest hint of a crooked smile, the flicker in the sea-coloured eyes from outward joy to a shuttered, inward and far-away reflective gaze, the heaviness with which he moves as though he is carrying the entire weight of the world. Although Cumberbatch is adept at portraying socially awkward geniuses with his eyes closed, he imbues Turing with an extraordinary layer of fragile humanity not seen before in his performances. While brilliant and socially abrasive, he manages to convey that Turing was not an alien and did not exist in a world of his own – his clumsy attempts at friendship, depth of connection to Joan, and life forever haunted by Christopher Morcom demonstrate that he was very much affected by those around him and took them very much to heart. Near the end of the film, the Cumberbatch’s incredible capacity for pathos and frailty is put on full display, not in an overly dramatic display, but a quietly suffering one that may be his best work yet.

It is clear from watching the film that it cares very much for Turing. Although it is not the most in-depth nor comprehensive account of his life and accomplishments – geared primarily towards a lay audience – the screenplay and acting include such beautiful and subtle details in an appreciative nod to those more familiar with Turing’s life and work at Bletchley: Turing’s limp in the scene in which Joan visits him following the war is surely a result of the oestrogen injections he was receiving as punishment for his ‘indecency’; scenes of Turing running, reminding us of his status as world-class long-distance runner; and Turing’s gift of apples to his colleagues in a gesture of friendship that sadly foreshadows accounts of his ultimate suicide in which he was found with a half-eaten apple by his bedside. Again, it is these small details which elevate the film from standard fare to a film that is lovingly and respectfully constructed in order to honour a great individual. It is indeed a tragic story, but rather than dwell on the tragedy in its final scenes, the film chooses optimism and hope over cynicism. That is, rather than preaching to the audience about injustices done to him, the film chooses to highlight his accomplishments, among which are the early end of World War II and the introduction of digital computation and morphogenesis. By doing so, the audience is not manipulated into empathising with Turing, but does so of its own accord, bearing witness to the immensity of Turing’s legacy and what he yet may have accomplished were it not for his vile persecution.

“Are you paying attention?” asks Alan Turing as he is questioned by the police in Manchester 1954. He poses the problem of the imitation game to the detective: who am I? The question is twofold in accordance with the story he has just delivered. On the surface, it is a linear narrative of the events at Bletchley as they occurred as told by a mathematician working for the British government. But underneath, there is a different story: a homosexual man who named the codebreaking machine after his first love Christopher Morcom, who struggled with his identity for much of his life, and was eventually cruelly persecuted for it. It is a poignant scene, not least because Turing expresses his own sense self-loathing ironically through the lens of his own scientific paradigm: am I human? If I were to be judged by the world, what would they see? Is a brilliant mathematician distinguishable from a homosexual? Is one intrinsically less human than the other? In doing so, Turing and the script dare the audience, and essentially, history, to treat both as one in the same and view Turing as the multidimensional being that he was – ingenious, awkward, intense, witty, creative, focussed, exceptionally kind, and above all, very much human. We are all of us incredible machines possessing both brain and heart, and Turing’s legacy as championed by The Imitation Game reminds us that both are necessary to be human, with all its complexities intact.