Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game: Why scientists make tricky leading men

Boffins are perfect enigmas, says Geoffrey Macnab

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 04 November 2014 19:00
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

The Second World War was boom time for “boffins”. These were the scientists and engineers who hurled themselves into the war effort. Historian Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 makes it very clear that every part of the armed forces was “permeated” with scientific and technical wizards. Boffins made an immense contribution to the Allied victory. That didn’t mean they were either popular or respected by the public at large.

In his memoir Between Silk and Cyanide (1998), the cryptographer Leo Marks includes an anecdote which sums up perfectly the contempt in which these home front “eggheads” were sometimes regarded. An envelope addressed to Marks was posted through the letter box. His mother opened it to discover “a white feather and a typed card with one word on it: ‘shirker’.”

To his neighbours, Marks seemed a coward: an able-bodied young man who had stayed in Britain while his contemporaries were on the front line, fighting the Nazis. They didn’t even begin to realise that Marks had saved countless lives through his codebreaking. To them, he was someone hiding behind a desk.

It is easy to be reminded of Marks’ memoir while watching invigorating new wartime thriller The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as cryptanalyst and computer pioneer Alan Turing. To his landlady, or to his military boss or to the policemen after the war investigating his homosexuality, Turing doesn’t seem remotely courageous. He is a socially awkward loner with a complete absence of social skills. Winston Churchill famously said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory against the Nazis, but to the outside world, he seemed a crackpot.

The real Turing did indeed have his foibles. Contemporaries quoted in Michael Smith’s book Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets remembered that Turing cycled into work at Bletchley Park wearing a gas mask to stop the pollen aggravating his hay fever and that he used to chain his mug of coffee to the radiator.

Think of scientists in movies and if they’re not absent-minded eccentrics, they’re gimlet-eyed fanatics in white coats, plotting to blow up the world. Either that or they’re comic relief like Q in the Bond movies. There is, however, another tradition of film-making in which the scientists are portrayed as the heroes: eccentric visionaries battling unsympathetic bosses to have their inventions taken seriously.

Michael Redgrave gave one of his finest screen performances as Barnes Wallis, inventor of the bouncing bomb, in The Dam Busters (1955). David Farrar was also impressive as the bomb-disposal expert (a sort of blue-collar boffin) in Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room. He’s a self-loathing alcoholic, prey to hallucinations and with a bad case of the shakes but when there is a UXB to defuse, he is the man. Cumberbatch is even better as Turing, driven and utterly single-minded and yet always with a little-boy-lost quality about him.

Boffins make tricky leading men. They are poor communicators. They may have a genius for decoding enemy messages but they’re invariably so enwrapped in their own research that they can’t “read” the behaviour of their colleagues. There are some comic moments in The Imitation Game in which Cumberbatch’s Turing fails to understand what flirting means or to appreciate why his fellow codebreakers are put off by his aloofness and brutal honesty.

It doesn’t help that the work the scientists and mathematical geniuses do is so repetitive. When they are trying to crack a code or perfect an invention, they spend eternities testing out theories. Invariably, they keep on failing until that hey presto! moment in the final reel.

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Not much tweaking to turn these boffins into furtive and sinister figures. In The Imitation Game, the Turing we see after the war is treated by homophobic police officers as if he is a predatory homosexual. There is something strangely seedy about his flat, at least compared with the smooth running wartime operation in the huts at Bletchley Park.

It is telling that Leo Marks went on to write the screenplay for one of the most controversial British films of all time, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Its protagonist Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is the “boffin” re-imagined as serial killer. He has the same solitary habits and social awkwardness as the codebreakers and inventors. He, too, is driven in the pursuit of his goal. That goal just happens to be photographing women at the precise moment he murders them with a blade at the end of his camera’s tripod.

In films foregrounding scientists, engineers and inventors that are set in wartime, the “boffins” are the heroes. Their battles with complex puzzles are presented in the same dramatic fashion as the fights and chases of the protagonists in action movies. We’re made very aware that people’s lives or the outcomes of battles will be determined by the accuracy of their calculations. In films set in peace time, the drama is played out on a much more intimate and psychological level.

With Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), a biopic about mathematical genius John Nash, the very title has an ironic undertow. In such films, we all know that if you’re a genius, the drama won’t come from you cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code. It will lie in your own battles with your inner demons. To have exceptional ability means that you are also bound to be damaged or tormented in some way. That is what makes The Imitation Game so refreshing. The very cerebral, very brilliant, very odd Turing played so movingly by Cumberbatch isn’t defined by his eccentricity but by what he achieves.

'The Imitation Game' is released on 14 November

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