The Enigma of Alan Turing: Morten Tyldum's 'The Imitation Game' chronicles the life of WWII unsung code-breaker
One of the most important figures of the 20th century is virtually unknown to the world at large. Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who was largely responsible for breaking the Nazis’ complex Enigma code that allowed the enemy to send strategic communiqués impenetrable by the Allies; that achievement is credited with shortening the war and saving countless lives, and arguably Western civilization itself. He is also generally regarded as the father of the modern computer. But not only did Turing work in secret, he died in obscurity by his own hand at the age of 42, soon after his arrest and conviction for “gross indecency” at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in England.
The profile of this formidable but tragic figure is about to change significantly, thanks to the Weinstein Company release The Imitation Game, the dramatization of Turing’s life that has already won the People’s Choice Award at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Benedict Cumberbatch, that brainy actor from the BBC’s “Sherlock” with the avid cult following, is riveting as Turing, a performance sure to earn him his first Academy Award nomination. The film also marks a giant leap into the big leagues for director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian who turned heads in 2011 with the outrageously dark comedy import Headhunters.
Film Journal International met with the 47-year-old director in Toronto a few days after his triumphant festival debut and discussed his path to one of the year’s top award contenders.
“Everybody says, ‘Why this?’” Tyldum admits. “After Headhunters I came to Hollywood and I was sent lots of action thrillers and superhero movies. Then my manager said, ‘You should read this.’ I read it and I was just blown away because I knew so little about [Turing]. First of all, it was a beautiful script, and then I was just shocked. I felt I knew a lot about history, but this man I knew so little about. He should be on the front cover of the history books. I became obsessed about him, and felt this was a story I needed to tell. I was an outsider in Hollywood, and this is a movie about outsiders, people who think different and don’t fit in and are outside the norm.”
Tyldum marvels at the arc of Turing’s life. “At 23 years old, he theorized the computer—he was so ahead of his time. And then the injustice—he was basically crucified. And then there are the layers of secrecy he had to carry. He was a gay man at a time when it was illegal…all these secrets that were piled upon him. Just the fact that during his trial he didn’t say anything.”
Graham Moore’s screenplay, at one time ranked number one on Hollywood’s “Black List” of best unproduced scripts, shuttles among three time periods: 1927, when the 15-year-old Turing is devastated by the sudden death of his teen crush (and fellow cryptographer) Christopher Morcom; 1939, when the socially awkward but brazen genius rises to the top of the team tackling the Enigma code at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire; and 1952, when the investigation of a break-in at his Manchester home leads to revelations of his sexual “crimes.”
“We wanted the different time periods to comment on each other,” Tyldum notes, “like a puzzle where every piece adds to it. So we understand his work during the war by understanding a little bit of his childhood, and understand his relationships [through those connections].”
Tyldum elaborates, “I wanted to tell the story as this mystery you unravel throughout the movie. We wanted this to an epic movie that is also entertaining. We didn’t want to make an obscure little biopic. I didn’t want it to be without humor, because he’s an awkward man and there are funny moments. We wanted people to laugh and then be very emotional. This is actually also a thriller—it’s not a historical biopic. This is a man with an awkward reputation who ended up a top spy.”
As anyone can attest who’s seen Headhunters, with its craven, thieving main protagonist, Tyldum is “never concerned about likeability. I’m more concerned with making [a character] interesting.” Still, Benedict Cumberbatch brought something extra to his portrayal of the aloof Turing.
“Benedict creates the warmth,” Tyldum declares. “[Alan] is a very determined and driven and arrogant man, and at the same time he’s very fragile and struggling with basic human interaction. And at the center of it all, you have this little boy who lost so much. It’s a many-layered performance, and Benedict captured all that wonderfully.”
The filmmakers were somewhat handicapped, the director notes, by the fact that “there’s no footage of Turing or recordings of his voice. All we had were descriptions. We talked to a lot of people, but they were like six or eight years old at the time. We tried to go into his mindset. A lot of people said he had Asperger’s or autism, but we didn’t want to diagnose him or put a label on him. That was the opposite of what we wanted to do.”
One great insight came from Peter Hilton (played by Matthew Beard), an Oxford undergraduate who was the youngest member of the Hut 8 team at Bletchley. “Peter said that there were so many smart people at Hut 8, but every time Turing came up with an idea, he thought: I would never think of that. Because it was so unusual and came from such an angle and had such a twist.”
The production benefited from an extensive rehearsal period for the Hut 8 group, which also includes Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate who wins a puzzle-solving contest and becomes a secret member of the top-secret unit (for the sole reason that she’s female); Matthew Goode as dashing team leader Hugh Alexander; and Allen Leech (“Downton Abbey”) as John Cairncross, a Scot with an agenda of his own.
“We gathered the cast, and we spent a few weeks rehearsing,” Tyldum recalls, “and I said this is the time when we’re going to make all the mistakes, when we’re going to try out everything so that we can actually feel the characters and shape them. Benedict tried out everything, his walk and talk, and we got in closer and closer until he came into focus and he found Alan Turing.”
As for his other marquee star, the director states, “Keira is lovely. And I think she can really relate to a woman who is not appreciated for her intellect and her talent. It’s so easy to look at a beautiful woman [and underestimate her]. She brought so much warmth and humanity to this brilliant woman. [Joan] was as much an outsider as Turing. I think that really attracted her, this woman who was not allowed to work with men. She was a clerk and later a linguist basically because she was a woman, even if she was this brilliant person. And Alan Turing saw that.
“It’s true that they got engaged for six months. Alan told her, ‘I’m not sure we should be engaged, because I’m gay.’ And she said, ‘I don’t care.’”
One slight challenge was Knightley’ beauty. “Keira said, ‘Do not make me too glamorous,’ so we found the ugliest cardigan, very plain, because that’s how Joan Clarke was.”
Tyldum is clearly fond of his ensemble, which also includes Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, head of the newly established MI6; Charles Dance as Commander Alastair Denniston, the strong-willed chief of the Government Code and Cypher School; and Rory Kinnear as the detective who investigates Turing and comes to regret his discovery.
“Every actor I asked said yes,” Tyldum says. “I had eight weeks to shoot everything, and they were so prepared. There was no drama, it became this family. Everybody felt the importance of telling this story. And I think it helped that we shot as much on the actual locations as possible… It adds so much. I remember the first time I brought in an Enigma machine—all the Engima machines are real German Enigma machines from the war. And the actors felt: Ah, this is the importance of what we’re doing, this is not just fiction, this is real.”
Tyldum says he felt no qualms that a Norwegian director and an American writer were “coming in on this very British story. Sometimes it’s good to be an outsider looking in. I like the challenge of diving into something like this and really researching it. There were things like: That machine gun wasn’t used until six months later—all these levels of small details to make the movie accurate.”
Tyldum also feels that “we Scandinavians have a great understanding of British culture, we’re almost neighbors. We grew up with the BBC, it’s like halfway in our blood.”
As an outsider, he contends, “you don’t take things for granted. There are things that maybe a great director might not tell about, because he takes it for granted that people know about it. The whole blitz thing, for example, I added in because it’s fascinating, the stoicism and how [the British] dealt with it. This was the early part of the war, 1939 to 1940, and they were losing. They were more or less starving to death—they needed food and all the convoys were being sunk, they were being bombed to pieces every night. And I was really impressed by how they just carried on and stood up to that. Hitler was really trying to break them, and he came very close.”
Remarkably, this ambitious movie spanning several decades cost a mere $15 miilion, a feat Tyldum attributes to “a lot of preparation, a lot of thinking. My production designer, Maria Djurkovic, was phenomenal, I always wanted to work with her and she said yes—I was grateful. She was like: This is the least amount of money I’ve ever had to work with. Part of the art department came from Harry Potter. She said, ‘The amount of money we have is so small, but I’ll make it work.’ And she was up all night tearing out her hair to make it work. The level of detail they brought is amazing—if you look at the wallpapers, they’re all messages, all codes.”
Tyldum marvels that “this small movie got the hottest editor in Hollywood [William Goldenberg], who just won an Oscar for Argo, and Alexandre Desplat, a six-time-nominated composer. For many of them, this was the smallest budget they had in 20 years, and it became a passion project for them.”
This suddenly hot Norwegian says he feels “very welcomed and appreciated” in Hollywood. “The reaction to Headhunters was phenomenal, so we thought: Let’s go over and see what happens. And you hear so many warnings: You’re going to be eaten up and people are going to stab you in the back and you’re going to lose all creative control and it’s going to be horrible. But what surprised me is that Hollywood is filled with people who love movies and want to be part of making great movies and telling important stories—that’s the core of them.”
Tyldum is also thankful for the “great privilege” of bringing the story of Alan Turing to a worldwide audience. “It’s almost humbling. His legacy should be well-known, and we hope we will be a part of that.” In this case, it’s not too early to say: Mission accomplished.