Movie Review: The Imitation Game

I recently saw this film, which is based on the life and exploits of the mathematician, codebreaker, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing.  It is very well acted and definitely worth seeing; it’s good for more people to become familiar with Turing’s story and the accomplishments of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.  HOWEVER, the extremely negative portrayal of Commander Alastair Denniston, who ran BP, seems to have little basis in fact. Denniston was a real person, and his family is understandably upset at the way he was misrepresented in the film. Dramatic license is one thing, but if you want a villain, then make one up; don’t turn a real historical non-villainous individual into one.  There have been several articles in the UK press lately about the film and its portrayal of various individuals, especially Denniston:

Bletchley Park Commander not the ‘baddy’ he is in The Imitation Game, family says

Bletchley Park ‘villain’ was kind and dedicated, says ex-colleague

The Imitation Game falsely paints Bletchley Park commander

The film also could have done a better job at giving credit to the Polish mathematicians who pioneered machine methods of codebreaking, before WWII began.  Also, the film gives the impression that Turing’s friend Joan Clark was the only female codebreaker at Bletchley…this is not true, a very large number of women worked at BP, and some of them were in professional codebreaking roles.  One of these women was Mavis Lever; I excerpted some of her writing about BP at my 2007 post the Bombe runs again.  And it seems that the real Alan Turing, while he definitely came across as a bit of an odd duck, was more likeable than he is (at least initially) portrayed in the film; he has been called “a very easily approachable man” who did in fact have a sense of humor.  There’s a bit too much of “standard character type 21037–eccentric genius” in this version of Turing.

The above critiques to the contrary, though, you should definitely see the film.  It does a good job of maintaining interest, even for those like myself who are already pretty familiar with the history The filmmakers could have avoided the above problems without harming the film’s impact as drama; indeed, I think there are accuracy-related changes that could have made the film more rather than less dramatic.

This article compares several of the fictionalized Bletchley Park individuals with the real-life counterparts.  And this piece, by a woman who has spent a lot of time studying Turing and BP, is focused particularly on the character of Turing in real life versus in the film.  Probably makes most sense to see the movie first and then read these links for additional perspective. 


17 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Imitation Game”

  1. Ah – a movie ‘trope’ which has often happened, due to the moviemakers believing that the real story ought to be ‘punched up’ for dramatic effect. And when the movie represents itself to be telling the story of a real event or a real person … well, all kinds of insult can be dealt to real people who have the misfortune to be handy enough to villainize for the purposes of making the story more dramatic. It’s all for the greater good, comrade.
    I had some thoughts on this a bit ago – can’t find the story in the boyz archives, but I did post it on my book website.

  2. >>the extremely negative portrayal of Commander Alastair Denniston, who ran BP, seems to have little basis in fact.

    I wonder what the libel laws say about this sort of thing? These folks are making money by disparaging his reputation. I think they have a case.

  3. A very negative review of The Imitation Game here:

    …the author’s main objection, though by no means the only one, is the Mr-Spock-like character assigned to Turing.

    Also, I hadn’t realized that Turing’s suicide (if that’s what it was) occurred a full year after the end of his enforce hormone treatment, which lends a certain credence to the theory that maybe the death actually was an accident or a murder.

  4. Thanks for this review David. I originally couldn’t wait to see this movie when they put previews in Oct-Nov – then when it was supposed to come out….it didn’t. At least in my area.

    Probably putting it in a few select markets for Oscar contention (had to premier this year).

    Then I am thinking Hollywood being Hollywood, they’d probably portray him as a homosexual who {unjustly] suffered, who happened to be a code breaker.

    I am glad this wasn’t the case – I wouldn’t think that Turing would want to be portrayed with his sexual orientation front and center either.

    At one time I read a fascinating book on the breaking of the enigma – the Polish mathematicians were really instrumental. Also from what I remember what became the enigma started as a commercial cryptography machine that the makers could find no market for in the 1920s.

    I sent this book on to a fascinating author who had an article in American Heritage – he was one of the cryptologists who help to break one of the Japanese codes (they had 2 – one military and one diplomatic).

    Finally on the role of women at BP I saw a fascinating short series – British produced – called The Bletcheley Circle, about 4 seemingly nondescript British housewives who, because of the official secrets act, cannot tell their husbands or police about their past, but they solve crimes based on pattern analysis – Recommended if you come across it (On Netflix)

    On your recommendation I will see it

  5. Bill, the movie did put a fair amount of emphasis on Turing’s homosexuality, beginning in fact with a flash-forward to his arrest. However, at least one of the linked articles suggested that the film actually *under-stated* this aspect of his personality, as it did not show him engaging in or seeking any adult same-sex relationship, and the relationship with his school friend was shown as (and might well have been) entirely platonic.

  6. “a fascinating short series – British produced – called The Bletcheley Circle,”

    I think I saw that one, too. I also think “Foyle’s War” may have had a similar episode.

  7. Something I’ve wondered about: while the first of the British codebreaking machines (bombes) was named “Victory,” the second and improved version was named–apparently by Turing–“Agnus Dei,” which is Latin for “Lamb of God.” (In the movie, the machine is named “Christopher” after Turing’s best friend in boarding school.) Why did Turing choose such a strange name for a piece of military equipment.

    I’m no expert of Christian symbolism, but apparently the first reference to the term is in John 1:29…”Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

    (a little googling suggests that Turing became an atheist after the death of his friend Christopher)

  8. “Christopher”–bearer of Christ.

    I’m (very slowly) downloading the first episode of “The Bletchley Circle” right now. Dang crummy internet connection.

  9. I too found faults in the film but highly recommend it for an exciting account of a very important man doing very important work for the world as a whole.

    To me the most interesting thing the writers added was the idea that the British would intentionally plant spies to allow Stalin to know the information from the codes as a way to beat Germany faster. I have no idea if this is true or not but hadn’t heard that before.

  10. Bletchely Circle is a fictional series on 4 women who worked at BP – but I think there were a lot of women there filling roles from secretarial to cryptology and Mike, I do recall an episode of Foyle’s War on BP – I think the historical research on that series was first rate.

    BTW I liked The Bletcheley Circle if for no other reason they showed us their thought processes in establishing a pattern.

    I had never heard of them deliberately informing the Soviets – all secrets (at least until recently with Bradley Manning and Snowden – are on a “need to know” basis – I don’t know any more than anyone else on this but I can’t imagine the British letting the Soviets know of their most secret of secrets.

    Surely based on Enigma intercepts the British told the Soviets nothing of Nazi battle plans in the east. Which, if it were true (letting Stalin know of the effort) the Soviets would have been badgering the British to let them know of Nazi plans in the east.

    Didn’t Churchill allow Coventry to be bombed – without warning the inhabitants – rather than risk tipping off the Germans?

    It sounds like – based on a scale of “artistic license” that the movie still comes off rather well.

    Some movies “based” on actual historical events – one has to wonder if we are in some alternate universe ;-)

  11. Texan99…interesting point about the name Christopher. Maybe Turing intended the name of the bombe as a subtle tribute to his friend, and the screenwriters were smart enough to decrypt it?

  12. I would like to put in a plug for the book “The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges.

    Hodges is a mathematician at Oxford. The book is the basis for Imitation Game. The book contains detailed and clear explanations of Turing’s pioneering work in logic and computer science, as well as the code breaking, that you might not get out of the movie. So, even if you have seen the movie, it would still be quite worthwhile.

    Turing was an important figure in the history of WWII. But, even if Turing had died before WWII, his work in mathematics would still have made him a very important figure in its history.

  13. I should follow up all of my links before I write:

    Hodges maintains a website:

    Which has a large quantity of supplementary material and links to supplementary material about his book, about Turing, and about code breaking.

  14. The day before I saw the imitation game I saw an hour show on history re the polish men who worked so hard and long and broke egnigma.They were stopped in their research when the Germans suddenly added 2 more cogs[ not the right word] and put the no of variations out of their reach.They handed over to the British and the French in a secret meeting all the ground work that they had done.I would have liked the movie to have started at this meeting and also have given credit to the polish men who had worked for years on this puzzle.

  15. Patricia…the movie did mention the Polish work, but only in passing, and I doubt most people noticed it…and the words that the screenwriter put in Turing’s mouth were dismissive of the quality of the Polish machine.

    Where did you see the program about the Polish work?

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