In the first of our articles shining a spotlight on a Best Picture nominee, we take a look at the Alan Turing pic, which departs from its “Troubled Male Genius” template just enough to stand out from the crowd.
How do you make a movie about a brilliant, socially-awkward, abrasive, insufferable know-it-all? Here’s what generally happens:
1. Establish your genius (in this case Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is smarter than everyone else. This can involve him writing on something, or looking pensive;
2. Make sure he reminds the other characters of this, repeatedly;
3. Show his indifference to authority – here Turing mouths off at Charles Dance no less, better known for playing major authority figure Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones;
4. Include a shot of our hero peering over a pile of books; and
5. Have one (or two) moments of absolute epiphany where his smarts pay off – this can involve shouting, throwing papers in the air and/or running.
The Imitation Game has all the tropes but it’s still a better than average war thriller, in no small part due to Cumberbatch’s phenomenal performance. It follows Turing’s efforts to break the Nazi’s Enigma code during the Second World War and the injustices suffered by Turing and others due to the criminalisation of homosexuality. The film takes a different tack on other adaptations of the familiar story – notably the 2001 drama ‘Enigma’ did not feature Turing at all.
We’ve seen the reclusive, complex male genius at work before – the ground trodden in A Beautiful Mind has been re-imagined for television many times in the forms of CSI, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Monk, Luther, The Big Bang Theory and the highly popular Sherlock starring Cumberbatch himself. The Imitation Game is familiar territory to us and the film’s star. It’s entertaining, a little different, but aside from detailing aspects of Turing’s life, unfamiliar to many, it feels like we’ve seen this before.
Most revealing is the all-important epiphany scene where characters faced with both scientific and social challenges typically solve one through engaging with the other. A flashback scene shows a young Turing, introduced to a codebook, comparing the puzzles to the human interactions he can’t understand. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash devises an early theorem by telling his mates how they all have the best chance of scoring at a pub. In the first season finale of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon gives Leonard advice on asking Penny out through comparing their situation to that of Schrodinger’s cat. We won’t spoil the epiphany here – but it’s along the same lines.
The Imitation Game goes further in exploring intelligence, the title itself questioning whether machines can think like humans and by extension how much humans, like Turing, can resemble machines. Turing’s interactions with the Enigma code-breaker, which he affectionately named, are premised on the idea that a machine can solve problems in a similar way to humans.
Turing’s interactions with others (including fellow code-breakers Keira Knightly and Matthew Goode) are often machine-like and robotic, frequently perceived as lacking empathy and social etiquette. One sequence where Turing tells a joke to co-workers is not unlike another in the similarly-themed ‘Bicentennial Man.’ Our genius protagonists often strive to overcome their machine-like social skills and develop important relationships – the race to break the code is the way for this recluse to better comprehend not only machines and patterns of thought, but further interactions with others.
Each adaptation of the troubled male genius breaks the mould slightly – but not too much. A film centred on a troubled female genius or someone more relatable (a la Good Will Hunting) would not go amiss. In the meantime, we can thank Turing and the crew for an entertaining thriller – even if we’ve seen some of it before.