Based on the life of British mathematical genius Alan Turing, The Imitation Game was a fine choice to open the 58th BFI London Film Festival. Leading the team at Bletchley Park who cracked the Nazi Enigma code machine, Turing was also the father of modern computing and without his work you may not actually have the PC, tablet or phone upon which you’re reading this.
But, Turing’s life was beset by secrets, including his homosexuality which he was forced to conceal during a period in British history when discovery brought harsh jail sentences or damaging experimental drug treatments.
The Imitation Game delves into Turing’s work during World War 2, an unhappy childhood at an exclusive public school and a scandal in the early 50s that saw Turing arrested for gross indecency and was only reversed by Royal Pardon in 2013.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, supported by Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, part of his Enigma team and confidant. Graham Moore scripted the movie with Headhunter’s director Morten Tyldum calling the shots.
All four were on hand to discuss the film at the international press conference in London’s Corinthian Hotel, presided over by Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. Questions were asked from critics from across Europe.
Over thirty lively minutes the filmmakers discussed everything from the shadow of Sherlock to the benefits of a Norwegian director bringing this very British story to the screen and that talk of Oscar nomination for Cumberbatch…
Benedict, was there a sense of responsibility playing the role of Alan Turing?
Benedict Cumberbatch: Yes, there is a disparity between his importance in modern culture and the lack of knowledge of the full span of his story and life. It was important to get the broader picture of him and his legacy out there. This has been an extraordinary decade for Turing due to his centenary, exhibitions, books and now this film.
He is getting the recognition he deserves as a scientist, the father of the modern computing age, and a man who lived an in uncompromising way. And on a personal note I could examine something not very well documented. Physically there is no visual or aural recording of him so there’s a huge blank canvas. It was a chance to personalise this extraordinary man.
Graham, it’s fair to say you were a self-confessed science nerd as a teenager. You obviously had a strong idea this was a story that needed to be told.
Graham Moore: I’ve been obsessed with the story of Alan Turing since I was a teenager. As a fan I always wanted to see an Alan Turing movie, a story that had been told so well on the page and on the stage. But no-one had ever done a proper cinematic treatment of it.
I always thought how come no one has made a film of this amazing, fascinating character, so just to get it made… I mean I would have been a PA on the set if I wasn’t the writer, you know. It’s an honour to be part of this story.
Keira, Benedict said there was very little visual or recorded documentation of Alan Turing. Joan Clarke is less well known, but were there sources you could draw upon beyond Graham’s script?
Keira Knightley: There was an interview she gave that’s online when she was in her late 70s. I watched that and certainly took that quality of quiet, very nice femininity I found interesting. I liked the idea she broke boundaries in her own right but didn’t go about it like a bull in a china shop. People didn’t see her coming, which was something I got watching her online.
But, also that great friendship and love that existed between her and Alan – you could really feel that in the interview. She was so protective talking about him. But, given how important she was there is very little.
Morten Tyldum: When I read the script I was shocked at how little I knew. But, I was an outsider in Hollywood and to me this is a movie about outsiders, about those who are different, who think outside the norm.
I was reading lots of action thrillers and superhero scripts. And then came this very British story that is such an important and beautiful story about an unsung hero who achieved so much. There was also a great human element about this man who lived outside of his time and carried all these secrets, his sexuality and as a mathematician who became a spy. So on a story and character level it was something I really wanted to do.
How is it being at the London Film Festival with such a film?
MT: It’s a little like coming home for me. It was shot here in London and it was important for us to shoot at as many places as possible – at Bletchley and the school where Turing went as a boy. It’s a great honour to come here and show the film to a British audience. The whole thing has been such a pleasurable experience and it’s been well received, so I’m very happy.
Benedict, what do you make of the talk of Oscar nominations for your performance?
BC: Eeerrrrmmmm. If it gets people to see the film, frankly that’s all I care about. It’s very early on and there are many other extraordinary performances we haven’t seen yet or that are also being talked about, so… As long as it creates an interest in people to see this film and what the fuss is about then that’s fantastic.
Our job as storytellers is to make sure there’s an audience for our storytelling. And more importantly for me having had this experience with this extraordinary man, I want this story to be known as broadly as possible and act as a launching point for interest and understanding and a proper celebration of Alan Turing. So from that point of view, it’s good.
Did Morten Tyldum surprise you during filming?
BC: You mean with his Norwegianess? I thought it was a very cool, intelligent and smart fit to choose a man who brought us a very entertaining and dark thriller (Headhunters) two odd years ago. The idea of combining that talent on something that had a nice thriller component but also played as a character study worked. You’re not vested in the film if you don’t care about the characters.
We talked and got on really well, sharing a passion for the subject. We engaged with the script and discovered more about this man then we had before; asking why isn’t he on some denomination of our currency or the cover of science or history textbooks. So yeah, I was thrilled and Morten has extraordinary energy.
KK: And a lot of caffeine…
BC: Yeah, a lot of caffeine. Morten is very specific in his direction through the various turns and twists, bringing not just energy but intelligence and wit.
Every time there is a film about Enigma, in Poland we wonder if it will tell about the Polish input. This is slightly different as it’s a character driven story, but I wonder if you have thought about putting more Polish input into the Enigma solution?
MT: There are two references to it in the film. We were very aware of the Polish input and we wanted to acknowledge that in the two references. The Polish work was based on the early version of the Enigma, but it was changed when the German army started using it. The work was a foundation, but in many ways didn’t help so much because the Enigma machine being used was so changed. Turing in many ways had to start over again. But, we wanted to acknowledge this and I believe we have done so.
Benedict, as someone who has made such an extraordinary success of playing a socially abrasive genius on the small screen in recent years, did you feel a pressure to inject Alan with nuances distinct from Sherlock? And given the lack of source material where did you look for that inspiration?
BC: Well, they both have my face, but they’re utterly different people. Turing doesn’t swish around in a coat with curly hair, demonstrating how brilliant he is. He’s very quiet, stoic and determined and different. He’s smart but the way he has to operate is as an outsider. Yes, he’s socially awkward but you see a whole evolution of the character which is humanising. I didn’t read the script thinking this was Sherlock in tweed, fiddling with valves.
I liked how uncompromising he was, but that’s a strong trait in strong characters and they’ll always have an attraction for actors of any variety.
And it’s a great honour to be asked to play someone like Alan Turing so the last thing you want to do is an impersonation of Sherlock. And it’s not, it’s really not. You can’t begin to shape what an individual is by looking for similarities with other stuff.
Are those comparisons frustrating or understandable?
I understand them, I mean they are frustrating but of course I find them understandable. I too watch stuff…
Question for Keira. Turing is a very strange character in many ways, I suppose now you would say autistic. Did you come to a conclusion on what his character was because in many ways he’s very hard to read, not only in the film but in real life?
KK: I didn’t think autistic. Did you Benedict?
Did you come to a conclusion on what kind of man he would be in real life?
KK: No, I just thought he was what Benedict had gone for. I thought it was a wonderful characterisation and made complete sense. I read the same biographies that Benedict had read and the same wonderful script. We don’t actually know because there are no recordings as Benedict has said, so who know? But, as a characterisation I felt it was beautiful and really got the essence of what I’d read.
Graham, do you want to comment on this suggestion of autism?
GM: Well, that was certainly a word that didn’t exist during Turing’s lifetime and diagnosing people years after the fact can be a little dangerous. It was not a word we ever used on set or in rehearsals.
Certainly he was someone who had a sense of social outsiderness, he was not like people around him. But, I think that’s because Alan Turing was separated from the world around him by so many different things. He was one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century, he was gay and closeted, and the government was asking him to keep all these secrets.
He was the outsider’s outsider, and that’s what we talked about bringing to life.
MT: We didn’t want to put him in a box. The whole theme of this movie is to celebrate uniqueness, to celebrate his life and his individuality. And to put a label on somebody is the opposite of what we wanted to do, because it then becomes a condition, something that can be treated. We wanted to celebrate that uniqueness.
Keira, you talked at the beginning about how Joan Clarke was breaking down boundaries. Would you say there’s a parallel between the movie and now with the new wave of modern feminism?
KK: Sure. The actual Joan was fighting for a place at the table and equal pay and I think those are the two main things today feminists are fighting for.
BC: I don’t know. It may be the Official Secrets Act, or the dark stain of shame of the government’s hand in persecuting thousands of men for their sexuality for fear of Communist sympathies. Plus, work in the sphere of pure mathematics is devoid for the larger part of any interest or culture of celebrity, or need for it beyond funding.
This means the true amalgamated importance of the man is his life as well as his work, and that’s only just something that people have acknowledged. But, why couldn’t the pardon have been earlier? I don’t know – I’m not the Queen or David Cameron… maybe those will be my next roles. You’re thinking of me in that frock; I’ve now got weird visions in my head.
But, I’m not going to decry it being a disgrace as I honestly don’t know the circumstances; it would be very interesting to investigate that.
How much of the maths did you actually understand, who was the best at crosswords and are any of you better at Sudoku now?
KK: No. One day we all thought we should really be doing crosswords so we brought in Quick Crossword and between five of us it took five days and we still didn’t finish it. So no, we’re really bad at all of it and I didn’t understand any of the maths. Did you Benedict? Don’t say you did.
BC: That opens a whole can of worms… There’s a great romance to the philosophy of maths and physics which is tangible. There are hugely exciting things everyone can understand: the idea of coding, the idea of programming, the idea of what we think of as language that can be turned into something universal and can used in a machine here, in China, Russia, New York. Those things excite me, the broad brushstrokes are very appealing.
How did you approach portraying Alan’s sexuality and its subtleties in a way that was appropriate to that generation?
BC: His sexuality is something expressed in the film but not shown explicitly. The behaviour shown toward his sexuality is sadly true to the story, the fact he had to for a large part supress his nature and make it a secret. But, also to be aware of the risk and at the same time not being willing to cave in to the potential ramifications of confessing such a thing. I know lots of people own him as a martyr or someone who is a standard bearer for the cause. I think he was just very true to himself, which is a form of martyrdom. But he didn’t make a political statement out of it, it was a personal thing for him.
And to remember that he was active, so his sexuality was important to him. While it turned out to be the most important and tragic strand to his story it is but one strand of his character, albeit as I said an incredibly important one. So it was important to me we got that right.
Keira and Benedict, you’re both Londoners. What does it mean to you that The Imitation Game is opening the London Film Festival?
BC: It’s amazing, really amazing. I’ve always wanted to spend more time at the LFF and to be here with this film, I couldn’t be more proud.