The Imitation Game—Breaking the Code Breaker

 

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing, a pivotal code breaker during World War II, was almost completely unknown until the release of this movie. A hero who contributed a master plan for breaking the German military codes, Turing ultimately sacrificed everything . He committed suicide in 1953 when his homosexuality was called out. Being gay was a crime punishable by imprisonment, not only in Great Britain but in most of the West.

For many years, breaking Enigma—the Nazi code believed to be unbreakable—was considered a top security secret under the Official Secrecy Act. The Enigma machine, brought to Bletchley where Turing lead the “brainiac” team, was finally disassembled and re-engineered by Turing and his co-workers. With the computational power of the Bombe, a  machine Turing co-developed,  the brainiacs came to understand the Enigma.  Turing is considered the father of modern computers.

Bombw
Bombe

“The Imitation Game” is named after the quest to differentiate machine from brain, coining the term “artificial intelligence”. It could as easily indicate the trials and tribulations of Turing as a child and as an indicted “criminal” for his homosexuality— “imitating” what conventional norms dictated in British society.  Additional plot points are introduced with the historical figure Joan Clark, (one of many women code-breakers at Bletchley, played in a confident, nuanced interpretation by Keira Kneightley) who adds a human interest element of friendship not based on sexuality but on mutual respect for mathematical genius. Kudos also to the excellent performances by the ensemble cast including Charles Dance , Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong.

The drama and the personal sacrifices Turing made are a spellbinding narrative that flows seamlessly in this film. Benedict Cumberbatch, as the stuttering, socially inept Turing, is as much a thespian genius as Turing was a mathematical one.

The movie holds the audience’s attention due to the brilliant way Cumberbatch has inhabited Alan Turing’s psyche. His malaise amplifies the tension of the tragic consequences  he will have to endure for his sexual identity.

For those who wish to know more about the women code-breakers (more than 80% of the total brainiac team), watch “The Bletchley Circle”, a PBS series loosely based on these women after the war had ended.

[Note: “The Bletchley Circle” is a series of whodunits available on Netflix. And Alan Turing was finally “mercy pardoned” and acknowledged for his contributions to ending the Second World War  on December 23, 2013 by  Queen Elizabeth of England, but she did not pardon the other 60,000 imprisoned for similar charges of “gross indecency”.)

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.