The story of Alan Turing and his role in breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code in World War II has been told many times. But never has Britain’s lauded mathematician been reincarnated as such a socially offensive, harsh and humorless character.
“My own concern was bringing the character back to life as he very likely was — warts and all,” says Benedict Cumberbatch, the award-winning actor who plays Turing in “The Imitation Game.”
To Cumberbatch, this wasn’t about taking creative liberties, but opening up to the layers and challenges surrounding Turing.
“I’m always disappointed when movies gloss over and fundamentally subvert a subject’s personality and make him likable just for the sake of profit,” says Cumberbatch.
The 38-year-old actor has gone from strength to strength since making his presence felt circa 2011 with his role in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and a convincing turn as corrupt British spy Peter Guillam in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Reflecting on how he got his start, Cumberbatch remembers following in his parents’ footsteps and embarking on an acting career, despite their resistance to the idea.
“My parents were actors who sometimes went without so that I could be given a good education. Rather like an ingrate, I then chose to follow in their path. Temporarily they were quite disappointed, but eventually my father confessed to me, ‘You’re better than I was or ever will be. You should do this,’ ” says Cumberbatch — a memory he says “means more to me than anything as an actor.”
“I love diving inside of a character,” he says. “Each and every one becomes like a relative to me, somebody that I know intimately, because I inhabited each one.”
And it’s quite a gallery: from Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” to the Necromancer in “The Hobbit” trilogy, and Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness” to England’s most famous fictional detective in the TV series “Sherlock.”
“The plays I did in school helped free me up. I think more than a few English people become actors for the emotional release.
“My choosing acting was sort of a hats-off to my parents. They didn’t become stars, but they did well. Quite well. Any working actor — an actor who’s working more than once in a blue moon — is doing well indeed,” he says.
Cumberbatch is one of those doing “well indeed,” which he chalks up to his education (he was an arts scholar at Harrow School) and training (he attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts).
“Americans are impressed by a solid background and, of course, we’re often hired to play American parts — our reputation is (that) we can play almost anything,” he says.
Although Cumberbatch was nominated for a best actor Oscar, it was screenwriter Graham Moore who won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for his script based on “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” a biography by Andrew Hodges.
“Benedict was perfect for this role because he’s offbeat. Which is wonderful. You have to be offbeat to play a genius,” says Moore.
“This was the man who cracked the Enigma code and helped Britain win the war against Nazi Germany — Alan Turing helped save an estimated 14 million lives and Winston Churchill credited Turing as crucial to their victory.”
It’s tragic that seven years after the conclusion of World War II, Turing’s government turned against him, persecuting him for his homosexuality — a criminal offense in early-1950s England. He was offered a choice: jail or chemical castration (including the injection of female hormones). Soon after opting for the latter, Turing died, and many believed he likely committed suicide.
This is by no means the first dramatization of Turing’s story. In 2009, a documentary titled “Decoding Alan Turing” was released; in 2001, the thriller “Enigma” was based on similar code-breaking work taking place in the same area as Turing. Then there’s Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play “Breaking the Code” (filmed for television in 1996), which received better reviews than “The Imitation Game” for its portrayal of a homosexual protagonist.
Although films about Turing have been criticized for taking creative liberties, “The Imitation Game” has been targeted specifically for its severe portrayal of Turing. Moore says the film was not about simply retelling of the story of Turing’s life: “This was more about a situation than about one character . . . about breaking the Nazi code and about Turing’s relationships and conflicts with his colleagues.”
One of those colleagues is Joan Clarke, Turing’s brilliant assistant, played by Kiera Knightley. Their platonic and prickly relationship is highlighted and, despite softening in her presence, Cumberbatch’s brusque Turing remains unlikable though convincing.
“He speaks his mind often and bluntly,” says Knightley, “and has little patience with small talk and niceties. After all, he knows how important his work is — saving British soldiers’ lives — and he does and says anything he must to get the job done.”
Knightley was amazed when she began researching Turing’s history — especially when she learned about the complexity of his task.
“The Nazis would change their code daily, so Turing had to start his work all over again every 24 hours. The mathematics involved stagger the mind, and that he was able to accomplish his goal is all but miraculous. I’m thrilled to have been part of such an incredible story that helps raise his profile,” says Knightley.
One factor that drew her to this supporting role was that Clarke was there “for her intelligence, not for her looks,” says Knightley.
Did Cumberbatch worry that his character’s humorless, rude personality would alienate audiences?
“I’m not sure we exaggerated his defenses and raw reactions to people around him,” he says. “I think most extraordinarily gifted and intelligent men have their quirks — Leonardo (da Vinci), Einstein — and, being an odd duck, Alan was used to people being rude to him, starting in school, so he defended himself by being rude back, especially while engaged in work on which the national security and so many lives depended.
“He knew that he knew best, and he didn’t like being questioned or slowed down — I have absolutely no problem with that.”
Asked if playing Turing was his biggest career challenge, Benedict laughs.
“No question, it was one of them. Being rude without immediately apologizing for it went against my grain,” he says. “But then, I’m not Alan Turing, a math genius with a major mission — excuse the alliteration.”
Turing’s socially abrasive character is set against the horrors of a distant war, made real when the code-breakers allow Nazi attacks to occur, attacks that took the lives of innocent Britons — necessary evils that enabled the code-breaking to remain a secret and the Allies to eventually win the war decisively.
“People literally had to be sacrificed during that horrible time,” says Moore. “There was a moral ambiguity to it all. Churchill, who praised Turing mightily, was to some degree responsible, early on, for allowing Hitler to build up militarily (after World War I). It took a long time for conservatives to see that Hitler was a dangerous opponent and not just a loudmouth who hated Jews, which didn’t upset enough people at the time,” says Moore.
Despite their successes, the real-life story of Turing ended in tragedy. Turing’s sexual involvement, at 39, with a 19-year-old who burgled his home, led to his arrest by British police who charged him with “gross indecency.”
“The investigator on the trail of Alan Turing thought he might be a spy,” says Cumberbatch. “Never mind that he’d rendered the nation a service which could not possibly be repaid. And then it took 62 years for an official pardon for Turing.”
Knightley feels that movies seldom represent how “real-life heroes aren’t like heroes in, say, a Hollywood picture.
“They’re far more complicated — and interesting,” she says. “If they’re doing something momentous, they’re also likely to be very stressed.”
Knightley recounts that one of the most intelligent people she ever knew “meant well and was a good man, but was neither socially smooth nor easy to befriend.”
The Turing that Knightley acted beside — she amicably refers to him as “our Alan” — “doesn’t hesitate to tell less intelligent co-workers that they’re stupid. In most situations that might be appalling, yet consider what he was working toward and wanted to get done, with minimum delay.”
Did Cumberbatch ever compare himself to this awkward man who was surrounded by “less intelligent co-workers”?
“I often thought, as a cocky young lad, ‘I’m rather smart, you know,’ ” he says. “But next to Alan Turing — not quite. The man was gifted, and had a work ethic like a bulldog. He just went for it, letting nothing stand in his way.”
In his impassioned Oscar acceptance speech, Moore admitted he tried to kill himself at 16 because he was suffering from depression and felt like he didn’t “fit in anywhere.” His empathetic portrayal of Turing’s complexities and burdens in the screenplay for “The Imitation Game” reveals a man who also struggled against a world where he didn’t feel he belonged.
“Most of us don’t live in the Dark Ages,” says Moore. “Anyone can have a gay hero, and Alan Turing is definitely a hero to me, as he should be to anyone who resists and fights dictatorship.”