The Imitation Game – art imitating real life?

Having spearheaded the most recent campaign to save Bletchley Park and being part of the campaign to get Alan Turing on a banknote I was very apprehensive about seeing the new film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges biography of Alan Turing and his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park during WW2.

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I spent several years of my life trying to raise public awareness of Bletchley Park and the contribution of the more than ten thousand people who worked there and have learnt a lot along the way. I’ve had conversations with several people who knew Turing, including his nephew and nieces and have spoken to many Bletchley Park veterans over the years.

I was apprehensive about seeing the film because I really didn’t want to see a film like “Enigma” again, a film which I’ve never actually managed to stay awake through despite being intensely interested in its subject matter. Apart from the fact that “Enigma” is not a particularly engaging film, I also found it preposterous that the character who is quite obviously supposed to be Turing is heterosexual in the film.

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I was delighted to be invited to sit on a Q+A panel after the showing of “The Imitation Game” at the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley, North London. I was even more delighted when I found out that the other members of the panel were Bletchley Park veteran and Bombe operator Ruth Bourne and Bletchley Park experts John Gallehawk and John Alexander who had brought along his three Enigma machines. What a treat 🙂

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It was my first trip to the Phoenix Cinema, the oldest purpose built cinema in London. I will definitely be going back, what a lovely place. Adam Gee who I think I met on Twitter in around 2009 when I started using it to raise the game in the save Bletchley Park campaign is a trustee of the Phoenix and asked me to be part of the panel. It was great to meet up with him again after not seeing each other in person for several years.

So, now to the film. My expectations were low, so I suppose it was quite easy to meet them. The film started and I settled down apprehensively, what sort of a shambles would it be?

The film starts with the setting up of Bletchley Park at the beginning of the war and Alan Turing amongst others arriving there. I have to say that the recreation of Bletchley Park was pretty good, though it was obvious that it was not filmed at Bletchley as the mansion house was much larger and looked different. The huts were well done and the feeling that you get as you walk onto the grounds of Bletchley Park did come through to me as I watched the film.

As a film The Imitation Game is reasonably watchable. The acting is good and the script OK, but unfortunately pretty poor in parts. As I watched the story unfold all I could think of was bubblegum. The film is a clichéd bubblegum version of the story of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing with many scenes that really made me cringe with their gross over simplifications. Turing’s character is so much a stereotypical English eccentric that I found it insulting to his memory. Cumberbatch’s acting is excellent, especially considering the sometimes ham-fisted script. I got the feeling that the scriptwriter had sat down with a list of the key scenes that need to be in any blockbuster film and then crowbarred them into the story and script. The English eccentric that doesn’t get on with anyone in his team is hounded by his boss to produce a solution to a problem, everyone has a go at him for not producing the goods, he nearly loses the right to continue working on solving the problem, but then at the last minute his team start to realize that he is on to something and then defend him from his boss blah blah blah blah blah. Eugh! The scenes in the script like this were disappointing in the extreme, my heart sank as I watched them.

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The story of Turing physically building the Bombe machine, or “Christopher” as it was called in the film, formed a large part of the central story of the film. This is, to my knowledge, completely inaccurate.

Turing produced the design for the Bombe, building on the design of the original Polish Bomba which had been produced by Marian Rejewski in 1938. The Bletchley Park Bombe designed by Turing, was refined by another Bletchley Park codebreaker Gordon Welchman and actually built by engineer Harold Keen who was based at the British Tabulating Company, not at Bletchley Park.

The story running through the film of one main codebreaker, Turing, with a team of four or five, producing a machine that won the war, is a ridiculous oversimplification of what actually happened. More than ten thousand people worked at Bletchley Park, more than eight thousand of them were women. We didn’t really get a flavor of that coming through at all from the film. There were many teams of codebreakers working on different areas of codebreaking.

The German High Command used an encryption machine called Lorenz which was broken by Bletchley Park codebreaker Bill Tutte. Captain Jerry Roberts often told the story before he unfortunately died earlier this year of sharing an office with Bill Tutte who for three months just sat there every day with a pencil and paper staring into space before finally writing down the exact workings of the Lorenz without ever having seen one. It was this breakthrough and the subsequent invention and building of the world’s first programmable digital computer Colossus by Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers which mechanized the breaking of the messages sent using Lorenz that has been said to have shortened the war by approximately two years. A wonderful memorial to Bill Tutte was unveiled earlier this year in his home town of Newmarket, he didn’t receive any recognition of his fundamental work in his lifetime, and died in Canada his adopted homeland in 2002.

At the end of the film the war being shortened by two years was completely attributed to Turing and his work on Enigma, which is not true. The shortening of the war by two to four years was attributed to “Ultra” by historian Harry Hinsley, Ultra was the codename for all of the top secret codebreaking work carried out at Bletchley Park by the ten thousand people that worked there.

As you can tell, there are many things that I didn’t like about the film. Gross over simplification of stories, people and facts, focusing on Turing’s one (platonic) heterosexual relationship and not giving any time to his homosexual relationships, attributing work carried out by several people who still have had almost no recognition for their enormous contribution to Turing, I could go on, and on, the film has many faults.

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But, I have to say that overall I loved it. Thinking about The Imitation Game from the point of view of how it presents such an important part of our history in a user friendly and easily digestible way to the average person in the street gets me very excited. I, and many others, have campaigned long and hard to get Bletchley Park and the codebreakers greater recognition for the amazing work carried out there. The work that those ten thousand people did, day in, day out, around the clock, in complete secrecy, some of them as young as sixteen when they arrived there, is an incredible story that needs to be told over and over in many, many ways. Unfortunately most veterans from Bletchley Park are no longer with us, but that doesn’t mean that it’s too late for everyone to appreciate the amazing contribution that they made to the peace that we enjoy today.

The Imitation Game is probably the most fundamental contribution we have so far to the public understanding of the importance of Bletchley Park. I hope that it wins Oscars, breaks box office records and brings the story of our wonderful British hero Alan Turing into the public consciousness. It’s never too late to celebrate our national successes, lest we forget…

You can see a working rebuild of the Bombe machine at Bletchley Park and a working replica of Colossus at the National Museum of Computing next door. Please go and visit, you will not be disappointed.

My book Saving Bletchley Park published by Unbound is available now through Amazon UK and Amazon US and in all good bookstores 😀👍🎉

If I have made any errors in this post please let me know.

45 comments

  1. Excellent review. I also saw some of the historical innacuracies but decided to try to ignore them and just enjoy the film and, as a result, it was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in a while.

    I’d also note that while there was a lot of emphasis given to the relationship with Joan Clark I think it was clear the main relationship in the film was between Turing and Christopher in all his incarnations.

  2. Coming from you Sue and know your passion for both Bletchley Park and Alan Touring, I bet yours is a great review, however, as I haven’t seen the film yet, I won’t read it until watching the film! – Promise to come back after that and leave another comment !

  3. Sue Thanks for this. I will still see the film, but your comments just add to the problems of seeing a Film produced for mass audiences from a subject one knows a lot about. Your post will add to my enjoyment for it reminds me of what we currently know went on at Bletchley Park.

    The film will be for me a theatrical rendition of what it may have been like to be there, but without CGI I can see why the 10,000 involved can not be even hinted at. The film certainly has raised the general awareness of BP and Alan.

    1. Sue. I watched last night on Blu-Ray at home. All in all a good story, well produced, with fine acting. I enjoyed the experience. While the inaccuracies and omissions did jump out, they were no more painful than many othe films where I have spent a lot of effort trying to understand the subject mater.

      This was a very good interpretation of Alan’s experiences and I hope it will stimulate many to seek out what happened at Bletchly Park and understand how much we have to thank Alan (and the many others) for.

  4. I finally got to see the Imitation Game, and I’m glad that my knowledge of the full Turing story is a great deal less the yours Sue. The factual errors didn’t diminish my enjoyment,mainly because I don’t know enough facts to cast a shadow over the storyline, but the glaring omissions, as pointed out by Sue, did concern me at the time. However, having had time to give it more thought, it was probably for the best since the simplification made it more entertaining and easier to digest for those who have never heard of Turing or Bletchley Park.

    The upshot of this twee story is that it may encourage many more to visit Bletchley Park and learn more about the huge historic significance of this hidden gem, and the role that others, besides Turing, played in the whole story. Even if many decide not to visit Bletchley Park at least more will know about the work of these previously unsung heroes.

    I confess that I went with many reservations, mainly down to the trailer which depicted the most dramatic scenes, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t as overly dramatised as I’d been expecting. The jumping back and forth in time would have annoyed my dad, but I found myself able to keep up with the skips, although why they spent so much time on Turings school days defeats me!

    A little saddened to see the injustice heaped upon Turing relegated to a footnote just prior to the credits rolling. Not enough was made of the absolutely insane punishment for a man who played a huge part in history, not just the war effort, but his part in the whole science of computing.

    Would I recommend it to friends? Yes I would!

  5. “Thinking about The Imitation Game from the point of view of how it presents such an important part of our history in a user friendly and easily digestible way to the average person in the street gets me very excited”

    I reckon this is the key, I watched the film from a position of very low knowledge and it certainly hit home with me. Of course I knew that it wasn’t 100% accurate, but in top-line educational context, that didn’t matter.

    1. Thanks Phil, yes I think raising awareness is key and although much of the film isnt accurate, it will still get people interested in Bletchley Park and the codebreakers 😃

  6. Hi Sue
    Just to say that you’re mixing two bits of data tigether in the numbers of people. There were 10,471 people at Bletchley at its peak but more than 12,000 if you include the Bombe outstations, which you have to (and should because they were an important part of the decoding) to get the 8,000 women figure. Personally didnt mind the simplification because I expected it. It’s a film not a documentary and very entertaining. So long as people watch it as such that’s fine. They can go to the books to read what really happened.

  7. What you have covered is one reason I have been hesitant about seeing this movie. The usual pr push – a lot of fluff and fantasy without the acknowledgement by them that this is a loose depiction of history-is another thing that has brought the feeling on.

    I am in the US, so hopefully there will be more serious pr coming out here nearer to the national release date other than the usual review “The cast blows it away”, “A must see movie!”, etc…too celebrity focused and little reality coverage? There has been some, but I feel not enough.That is my cynicism of Hollywood I guess! 🙂

    While I realize the movie will raise much needed awareness, I tend to get skeptical when pr seems ‘off’.

    Yes, most people are fully aware that there will be inconsistencies factually, historically and personally in terms of any Hollywood movie based on non-fiction.

    There are few who are willing to acknowledge this.

    At times when one does one is considered as being disrespectful or offended.

    Thank you for your open-minded review Sue! 🙂

    1. Thanks very much Kelly Anne, yesI was slso very worried about all of that. The main thing I don’t understand is why change a story which already has everything? To me the real story is more powerful.

  8. I was really surprised in the film no reference was made to the beautiful Fibonacci type drawings in his flat because he worked on morphogenesis in the period in the film; furthermore, if the mass of valves and relays in his flat was supposed to be ACE, it was way outwith the timeline as this was done 6 years previous at the NPL in Teddington.

  9. Hi Sue! Thank you for your open-minded review and for all the work you do for the Save Bletchley Park Campaign.

    I’m somewhat of a Turing / Bletchley Park enthusiast myself, and like you was apprehensive about seeing “The Imitation Game” because while the film has received mostly stellar reviews, I’d also heard that there was quite a bit of creative license taken in dramatizing Alan’s story.

    I saw “The Imitation Game” over a month ago and on the whole, found it to be an engaging, well acted, directed, and beautifully scored dramatization of part of Turing’s story, albeit peppered with historical inaccuracies which I found distracting.

    It’s best that anyone with any knowledge of Turing/Bletchley go into “The Imitation Game” forewarned not to expect adherence to historical accuracy and probably important to note the script is “inspired by” Hodges biography (not “adapted from” the biography). Even while I expected some variation from historical events, I really couldn’t really stop my brain from making a note whenever a modification played out on-screen. (I guess I expected more of a nuanced, multi-layered approach with cameo-like nods to other cryptanalysts like Welchman and “easter eggs” of sorts for those with us more knowledge of actual events.) I’ve heard from others that a second viewing makes it easier to look past the inaccuracies and engage with drama. And in retrospect, many of the additions, omissions, and exaggerations seem to drive the narrative, simplify complexities, or serve as allegories representing a larger theme or process.

    To be fair, I don’t think the filmmakers ever really intended for The Imitation Game to be a complete history of Bletchley Park, or for that matter a complete & detailed retelling of Alan Turing’s life. It seems the filmmakers’ intent was to raise awareness of Alan Turing’s genius, achievements, and ultimately tragic end among the general public – a mass audience who prior to this film, knew little or nothing of Turing. And they do succeed in achieving that basic goal, relating the essence of Turing’s spirit and the atmosphere at Bletchley during that time, while creating an effective drama.

    To be honest, it would be pretty difficult (though not entirely impossible) to detail all the complexities of Turing’s life, or those of Bletchley Park, within the space of a 2 hour film that still maintains a narrative that a general audience finds compelling and understandable. Like you I’m thrilled to see the buzz “The Imitation Game” is creating for Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. While I hope the film serves as a launching pad so that those who didn’t know much about Turing (or Bletchley) going into the film, emerge inspired to learn more, I think it’s just as important to have discussions like this regarding the film’s many dramatic conceits.

  10. I finally saw The Imitation Game last night and coincidentally found this post this morning.

    I was looking forward to seeing the film but also slightly apprehensive that the accuracy would be badly hacked to twist it into a Hollywood movie.

    I’m glad to have read this post the day after seeing the film and to find out more detail and accuracy around the story.

    I hope the film acts as a gateway to encourage more people to find out the details about Bletchley Park and I hope people find this post to aid that process.

  11. I loved your review, you have it spot on, although the historical story is incredibly simplified I also loved the film. Keira Knightley said in an interview after the film’s opening, “It is a drama, not a documentary”. Few people today have knowledge about the achievements at BP in WW2 and the film brought that to life, hopefully some will be intrigued enough to want to read more. My personal interest in the film was the portrayal of Joan Clarke who was my Godmother. Joan was my mother’s best friend at Cambridge. I could never beat “Aunty Joan” at chess!

    1. Oh wow! Thanks so much for commenting on my blog 🙂 how wonderful to have met Joan Clarke, let alone have her as your Godmother Anthony 🙂 Do you have any stories at all about her that you are happy to share? I would love to know what you remember of her.

      1. The only picture I have of Joan Clarke was the group picture at my Christening in 1947 at the church in Cambridge where my father was the Vicar. In later years I wrote thank you letters for Christmas and birthday presents, and remember having the change of surname to Murray explained to me. When I went to boarding school in Cambridge “Aunty” Joan would regularly stay at a flat in Cambridge and I would go round for a tea with cakes and played Bridge and Chess with her and husband Colonel Murray. “Aunty” Joan was a warm hearted “motherly” figure to me. I remember her address changing to Cheltenham. Like many teenagers in those days I was passionate about model railways and at school attempted automation using my own home derived logic. The Post Office type relays and uniselectors I used can be seen at BP! If I only knew that Joan could have taught me Boolean logic! I then went to University to read Electrical Engineering with Semiconductor Physics. I joined industry as an Electronics Engineer, then later into software engineering, now semi retired. “Aunty” Joan was invited to my wedding but was unable to attend, but sent a wedding present.

      2. Excited to discover this thread last night, having spent the day with family at Bletchley Park yesterday. We were all there at the museum, for the first time, although my husband had stayed there on a residential orchestral course with the Bucks County Youth Orchestra in the late 1960s when the history of BP during WWII was still a well guarded secret.

        A friend of our family since the late 1990s (also Anthony’s mother) had told us of a close friend of hers who during their time as students at Cambridge University (during WWII) was suddenly shipped away without explanation along with other members of the maths department. She had known later in life that it was BP where her friend had been moved to and where secret work was undertaken.

        Whilst visiting yesterday we were wondering which part of BP the friend had worked at (there weren’t many clues!) On researching more last night it began to look like it might indeed have been Joan Clarke and then we found Anthony’s comments on this thread confirming this!

        We spent many hours listening to our friend and staying in her holiday home and were intrigued with many a story, including war-time tales and memories – some with more mystery and intrigue than others such as this one. It was lovely to read some more. We had lost touch with Barbara when she moved house unexpectedly and have since found that she sadly passed away at the same time as my father-in-law.

        Thank you Sue and Anthony.

      3. Oh wow! Thanks for your comment Lynette, what a lovely story 😃 and thanks so much for sharing it with us. If you remember any of the stories I, and I’m sure many others would love to hear them. Take care. Sue

      4. Dear Sue

        Thank you for responding to my post. It was most encouraging to receive a response – one can feel lost in the enormous seas of the internet.

        The other stories we were told were not of Bletchley Park, and I think it would be more appropriate for a member of the family to share them.

        Lynette

      5. Dear Lynette,
        You are very welcome. The internet has the power to brong us all together to get to know each other. That’s one of the things I really love about it 😃
        Thanks again for your comments.
        Sue

  12. I purposely tried to avoid any spoilers about the movie itself in advance of seeing it, having done a fair bit of personal research and reading on Bletchley in the last couple of years, I have a decent idea of the work done by the thousands of people involved. I found viewing it as a fictional bio-pic as a separate identity was useful, particularly if Turing had told a police detective of his work at Bletchley, even in 1951, the detective could have easily charged him with treason, not solely for being gay.

    As for the engagement to Joan Clarke and how it was portrayed, I never actually saw romance in it at all – an intellectual attraction, yes, but not a physical, intimate attraction. And Joan seemed to get that. I don’t really think she saw romance there.

    I do hope that with the success of the film, that it makes even a few more people do a bit more research themselves into what work did go on at Bletchley, and learn some more about it.

  13. I DO agree that if this film gets people thinking about the extraordinary contribution made to the war effort by the Bletchley Park 10,000 – then great. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in the role but for a greater sense of historical accuracy I preferred Derek Jacobi’s tv take on Turing.

    So, as a piece of Hollywood entertainment it is a mostly enthralling entertainment, but as a WW11 history afficianado, it’s just so damned innacurate and cliched filled,

    Exhibit A: Charles Dance’s obstructive Commander Denniston who seems to be a proxy for 21st century attitudes to the military. The film also doesn’t adequately capture just how dire the U-Boat threat to England was. The listless direction by Morton Tyldum – by the numbers newsreel insertion – and awful CGI doesn’t help. I’ll be picky here and say the CGI battleship was pathetic and the dead in the water vessel depicted looked American in origin. They would have done better to “crib” footage from “Sink the Bismarck”.

    The eureka moment is undeniably good and brilliantly edited but has a strangely Famous Five quality to it. Then there’s nothing about Ultra and all of a sudden we magically know where all the Allied warships and intercepting U-Boats are in the Atlantic. Speaking of “Sink the Bismarck” such a sensitive chart would only have been at the Admiralty in London – Kenneth More’s performance in that film – the very embodiment of the importance of the moment.

    At least 2001’s “Enigma” got across some of the impact of what was actually happening out in the freezing and U-Boat infested waters of the Atlantic, but then, it WAS based on Robert Harris’s superb historical thriller of the same name.

    That’s before we even get started on the film’s utterly erroneous claim that Alan Turing designed/invented the electronic bombe.

    I just look forward to a screen adaptation of the Bletchley Park story that at least to some extent eschews crowd pleasing Hollywood box ticking in favour of something closer to the real story – which I think if told well – will be infinitely more satisfying.

    Have to say though, and largely agree, that an Oscar nomination does look to be coming the way of Mr Cumberbatch. It’s a bit like Meryl Streep though playing Margaret Thatcher – best thing about the film.

  14. Thanks Sue.

    Nice to not get smashed on the Internet of late…cue the violin strings.

    If you could please indulge this WW11 history buff though, perhaps the most possibly tantalising thing about the Bletchley narrative is that the real story of Enigma is still being protected. Don’t mean to outstay my welcome by saying this but as we move so much further away from 1945 I almost feel a sense of distress that maybe we’ll never really see that dark and existentially terrifying period of the 40s depicted again on the screen with such a fidelity to the real thing and films such as Dunkirk…Sink the Bismarck …The Dam Busters…The Battle of Britain…In Which We Serve….The Cruel Sea.

    I know I’m repeating myself but the next time we get Alan Turing on screen let’s hope we/I feel a gut churning sense of what breaking the German naval code was all about: The very preservation of England’s sea supply lanes.

    It was surely just as important as earlier stopping the Luftwaffe in the air in the summer of 1940.

    Give us THE period…not 21st century worthiness.

    Please.

  15. I love your review. I agree with the film’s weaknesses and at the same time you are right that it was a very important film.

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