‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Alfred Molina about ‘Love is Strange’

Alfred Molina Love is Strange

He has played a variety of characters in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Boogie Nights,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Not Without My Daughter” to where it seems like he can play anybody (and he probably can). Now Alfred Molina takes on a more intimate role in Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange” where he plays George, a Catholic school music teacher who, as the movie starts, marries his lover of 39 years, Ben (played by John Lithgow). They have a joyous ceremony, but once word reaches the school of George’s wedding, they subsequently fire him. This leads to a great deal of upheaval in the newlyweds’ life as they are forced to sell their apartment and spend time apart for the first time in years as they search for more affordable housing. The situation weighs very heavily on George to where he feels like he’s failing Ben and everyone around him.

It was a great pleasure to speak with Molina while he was doing press for “Love Is Strange.” It turns out that he and Lithgow have been friends for many years, so the fact that they have great chemistry onscreen should be no surprise. In addition, I also asked Molina about how sees the world of independent filmmaking today, why Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” inspired him to become an actor, and of what it was like to shoot this film without any rehearsals.

Love is Strange movie poster

Ben Kenber: Since you and John Lithgow have been friends for a long time, did the chemistry you two developed onscreen come easy to you?

Alfred Molina: Yes, it did. I think the advantage of being friends with John, having had a relationship as friends, helps us both in a way. For me, it just meant there was shorthand already in place. There was an ease and a rapport and a relaxation between us that was very easy and also very conducive and helpful for the roles we were playing. I think we would’ve still enjoyed the fact that we are friends if we had been playing adversaries in a movie or a good guy, bad guy. But the fact that we were playing a couple in a long-term relationship, I think our history as friends only helped and sort of aided that.

BK: What I really liked about this movie is that what the characters go through is quite ordinary, but it takes on a different feeling here. We don’t see enough movies these days about regular ordinary people, and the problems the characters go through here feel quite epic.

AM: Yeah. People lose their jobs, people lose their homes and it’s always bad news. But it happens very often for the most trivial of reasons, and I think the fact that Ira Sachs and (co-writer) Mauricio Zacharias created a couple who, by their very ordinariness, when this crisis happens to them, it takes on epic proportions. And like most crises that happen to ordinary people it becomes huge because normally in our own lives we don’t have the power or the means to overcome them quite so easily. It takes time and I think the fact that George and Ben are, for all intents and purposes, a very ordinary and a very anonymous couple adds to the strength of this story.

BK: I also wanted to congratulate you on receiving the Spotlight Award from the Creative Coalition at Sundance for your work in independent films. How do you think the world of independent films is faring today? Has it gotten easier to make them or harder?

AM: Well, I think it all depends on one’s perspective. Independent moviemaking is always a challenge. I think whenever you’re working on projects that don’t have immediate commercial appeal and you’re working outside of the studios, especially on low budget films where you’re really scrambling to raise $2 or $3 million to make a movie or however much it is, you’re working under all kinds of restrictions and challenges and the biggest one of course being time. You don’t have time. You very often don’t have time to absorb any mistakes or any accidents or anything that happens that kind of works against your schedule, so it’s always a challenge. But I think the fact that there are so many independent movies finding an eager audience means that there’s something being done right and well. There is an audience out there for good stories. There’s an audience out there for well-made, well-crafted, sincere movies about real people in real situations, and I think the reason why there’s an audience is because of the way cable TV, for instance, has welcomed movies. So many directors and writers and actors are now working on cable shows because that’s where some of the best movies are being made where young directors are getting the chance to make their films and tell their stories. The relationship between the product and the audience has changed a lot. There was a time when you were working on television that you were very much the guest in someone’s house. But now cable has changed all that because you’re paying for it. Also, our TVs have gotten bigger so it’s like watching a movie, and if you’ve got a 50-inch screen in your front room, the ratio is pretty typical of a small movie house. You can be watching movies at home and I think that changes the dynamic between the product and the audience, and there’s an audience out there for small films. The independent industry lurches from one crisis to another, and in those ups and downs there’s some great movies being made.

BK: I’ve talked with a lot of indie filmmakers recently and they usually get a shooting schedule that’s 30 days if they’re lucky, but those schedules keep getting shorter as time goes on.

AM: That’s right, yeah, because making movies gets more and more expensive. But there will always be an independent director, writer, actors who want to continue to work in that milieu because ultimately that’s where the most interesting stuff is happening. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s where the best films are being made.

BK: Your character of George has a great line in this film where he says, “Life has its obstacles, but I’ve learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.” I think it’s very interesting in that George teaches at a Catholic school and has for many years, but the school doesn’t always respect the individual that he is.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that’s a great shame for anyone who’s in the same position as George; losing your job or losing your home or being chastised by society in some way because of who you choose to love and who you choose to spend your life with. As a heterosexual that’s something I’ve taken completely for granted. I can take it for granted that I can love whoever the hell I want and no one can stop me, but my gay friends have only recently begun to enjoy that right. So I think that’s why lines like that in the movie are terribly important and very, very resonant not just for gay men and women but for everybody. I was talking today with John (Lithgow) about how… He’s only been to a few gay weddings in recent years, but we both found them incredibly moving. Weddings are moving anyway. Anybody who confidently stands up and says I want to spend the rest of my life with this other person is making a very dramatic and a very moving and emotional statement, but when it’s two gay people you know that it’s not just full of the romantic and emotional power of the moment. It’s full of years, sometimes decades, of struggle to reach that point, so it has even more significance.

BK: That’s a very good point. In recent years, we’ve had movies like this and “The Kids Are All Right” which are about gay couples, but the fact the couples are gay becomes irrelevant because they deal with the truth of what married life is like and the struggles which come with it.

AM: You ask anyone who’s active in any kind of human rights or equal rights campaign and I’m sure they would say that their ultimate goal is to no longer have to have conversations like this where one sexuality is no longer relevant. Whenever I come across any kind of vaguely homophobic sentiments I’ve gotten to ask people, “When did you first realize that you were straight?” It’s amazing the reaction that gets because they don’t know how to answer, and the truth is that no one should have to put up with being asked that.

BK: I once read that you said you have to believe in what you’re saying in the same way your character does. Whether it’s Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler you’re playing, you have to portray them honestly and accurately regardless of whether they were good or bad. A lot of actors like to change material to where it suits them better, but I liked what you said because it goes the fact that the part is not about you, it’s about the character you’re playing.

AM: I’ve always regarded my job as being about serving the character regardless of who the character is. At a certain point taking on a job and then once you signed the contract and taken the money then saying “oh by the way I don’t think my character would say this” or “I don’t think my character would be like this,” that’s a conversation that one should have before you sign the contract and take the money. Once you have committed to something, you should be committing to the same things that everyone’s agreed on. Just as an act of creativity, you’ve got to give the same amount of dedication to whether you’re playing Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa.

BK: I also read you were inspired to become an actor after watching the movie “Spartacus.” What was it specifically about the movie which inspired you so much?

AM: You know, I don’t know myself. It was so long ago and I must’ve been about nine years old when the film came out. I just remember coming out of that film just knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t mean I wanted to be a gladiator, but I just wanted to be doing that; making films, being in films. I’m not quite sure what it was that prompted that, but it was a very powerful feeling.

BK: There were no rehearsals of scenes when it came to filming “Love is Strange.” How did this affect you as an actor?

AM: Well it was an interesting process really because normally you have rehearsals and work things out. I would hate for you to think that it was due to a lack of preparation; it wasn’t that. Ira Sachs, our director, came to the project impeccably prepared. What he didn’t do though was that he didn’t have us rehearse the scene and then play into the camera what we had rehearsed. He just wanted us to go into the take with the camera running and to just discover it in the moment. That was a very refreshing way to work, I loved it. I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s very rare that directors give you that kind of freedom and also, given the fact that we were under the severe constraints in terms of time and money, it worked out well.

BK: “Love is Strange” seems to give the audience a very unique look at New York whereas other movies tend to portray it as a crime ridden place among others things. Would you say this movie gives a more accurate view of New York than other recent films have?

AM: Well, I think it’s as accurate a view of New York as any other movie. I don’t think the view of the city that the movie has is a negative one by any means. The city looks beautiful in this movie especially in that last sequence with that sunset and the two young characters on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful, beautiful ending to the film. Because it’s the most photogenic city in the world, any film that takes place in New York has to deal with New York as a character in the film. There’s nothing nondescript about New York. It’s a unique looking place. No other city in the world looks quite like it, so I think it’s something any filmmaker has to embrace.

BK: The interesting thing about the way Ira Sachs frames this movie is that it could’ve taken a huge political stance but he doesn’t which feels quite appropriate. He’s not taking issue with anybody, but he’s takes good observations of the Catholic doctrine and how it affects certain people.

AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a political film; it’s not a diatribe on the state of gay culture or the Catholic Church. It’s a domestic story. It’s a love story set against some real events that happened to real people, and I think it makes some very wry observations about the city and about New York real estate and about the conditions a lot of people live under. It’s not a message movie. What drives the movie is a kind of deep humanity.

I want to thank Alfred Molina for taking the time to talk with me. “Love is Strange” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.