The Awards season is upon us, and one of the major films to receive recognition this year is The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, and Matthew Goode. The film tells the incredible true story of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst that built a machine to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma code during World War II. With the eventual help of other Bletchely Park cryptanalysts like Joan Allen (Knightley), John Carincross (Leech), and Hugh Alexander (Goode), the intelligence output generated from Turing’s machine is said to have shortened the duration of the war, thus saving millions of lives.
The Imitation Game has helped bring recognition to a brilliant man who may otherwise be overlooked. However, it also tells another, darker story. Turing was a homosexual, and even though he contributed so much to Great Britain (and to the world), authorities used his sexuality against him. How horrific is that? A man that sacrificed so much for his country, and kept many government secrets private, did not receive any respect or privacy in return. After the war, authorities seized on the fact that Turing was a homosexual and convicted him of “indecency”. Instead of going to prison, Turing agreed to have a chemical castration. He was never the same again.
Cumberbatch completely transforms into Turing, becoming almost unrecognizable. We have seen Cumberbatch play the role of a brilliant, socially-awkward man before in Sherlock, but this is completely different. From the way he holds himself, to his speech pattern, Cumberbatch gives one of the most transformative performances of the year; it’s easy to see why the Cumberbitches (the nickname of his fans) love him so much. Knightley, who I constantly attest does not make bad movies, is also at her best, bringing attention to a woman who is just as smart, if not smarter, than her male counterparts and was a constant positive force in Turing’s life. These two “outcasts” (a homosexual man and a woman in a male-dominated environment) contributed to the biggest intelligence feat of WWII, which helped turn the tide of the entire war. Thankfully, their contributions are finally being brought to the public conscious.
Thanks to a wonderful script by newcomer Graham Moore, and brilliant performances from the entire cast, The Imitation Game is a must-see this holiday season. At the Middleburg Film Festival this past October, I had the opportunity to sit down with Allen Leech (of Downton Abbey fame) and screenwriter Graham Moore (who just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay and is expected to receive an Oscar nomination as well). Leslie Combemale (The Cinema Siren) and I spoke to them about the fine line between humor and drama in a film, playing and writing about a real person vs. a fictional character, working with an actual Enigma machine, and much more! Check out the interview below and go see The Imitation Game in theaters now!
Lauren B.: Good! Have either of you been to DC before?
Graham: I have been here a bunch but [to Allen] it’s your first time, right?
Allen: Yes, it’s my first time.
Lauren B.: Are you going to get to explore at all?
Allen: We did a bit of exploring last night.
Graham: I have a friend that lives nearby and she took us out to dinner and we walked around the neighborhood. It was really lovely, but we were the only people at this Halloween party without costumes.
Lauren B.: Allen, you should’ve just said you were playing someone from Downton Abbey.
Allen: Yeah, we came up with Downton to the Future. It was Tom Branson with a DeLorean.
Lauren B.: Anyway, we digress! I wanted to first talk to you [Graham] about the humor in The Imitation Game. There’s a fine line between making the movie have too much humor or being too dramatic. How did you find that balance?
Graham: Yeah, I think throughout the process, having a certain lightness to the piece was important because we obviously knew it was going to get to such a dark, heavy place. One of the most amazing things about having Alan Turing as a historical figure, and as a character, is that he was so lively, driven and passionate. We didn’t want to make a doddering, stumbling mathematician character that you’ve seen a million times on-screen before because I don’t think that’s what Alan Turing was like. His life was full of passion and humor and we wanted to show that on-screen. Certainly if you look at the lunch scene, where you [Allen] and Benedict are talking about lunch for an entire page, it’s a funny thing to be like, “Are we going to spend all of this time getting jokes into the movie?” But, I think that was important for all of us as a way to pay tribute to Turing.
Leslie: I thought it was interesting that you chose to commit to him having killed himself because there is a lot of controversy over whether he did or not. How much research did you do about that and what made you commit to that eventuality?
Graham: We did as much historical research as we possibly could. I think he killed himself. Andrew Hodges, who wrote the biography of Turing [Alan Turing: The Enigma] that we used as our first research material, very much believes it was a suicide. I think major historians on the issue believe it to be suicide, and so we felt very comfortable going with that. There are all sorts of conspiracy theories, like did MI-6 have him killed, which I find very, very goofy and hard to believe because it doesn’t make much sense. I think with all of the research we did, it seemed to me and to all of us that it was very like that it was a suicide. His mother believed it was an accident. She believed that cyanide accidentally got onto the apple. I can’t say it’s impossible that that happened, but to most major historians that seems unlikely.
Leslie: For a certain part of the population, it’s going to be a really hard movie to watch, which I love actually because it’s about a lot of things.
Graham: Yeah, I think that was one of the main goals with the piece, taking a story that could be so difficult, but it’s important. It needed to be told on-screen in this way. It’s about a gay, English mathematician who commits suicide at the end. That’s not a film many people are used to seeing in cinemas. But to take a story like that and bring it to a wider audience was… Alan Turing and Joan deserve that. She has many accomplishments that have never been celebrated. So that was always the goal for us with this film.
Lauren B.: Can the two of you talk about [to Allen] playing a person that actually lived versus playing a fictional character and [to Graham] writing about a real person versus fiction. Which do you find harder?
Allen: I think that you have to approach it in a very different way. There’s a certain responsibility when you play someone that actually existed. You want to be as true as you can to that person. Unfortunately, John Cairncross is deceased so you’re turning to source material like biographies and word-of-mouth stories that you heard about these certain people. Then you also are confined to tell a story within two hours, so there are certain things you have to allow for the story to tell the story and in this case you’re playing a character who is a supporting role to the story of Alan Turing. Again, there are challenges within that as well, but you meet them as a team. When you have a good script like Graham’s, it’s very easy to find your character. The one thing that everyone felt when they started this was that the characters were so well-rounded and you got a sense of who they were, which comes down to a brilliant script. Obviously, you can play a lot more when it’s fictional and you can take larger, grand creative choices because at the end of the day, there aren’t living relatives that will say, “He never walked on stilts when he was at work!” [everyone laughs] There are certain responsibilities, but I feel in this story, all of the choices we made were important in relation to telling Alan’s story.
Graham: We had a screening a couple weeks ago for Alan’s surviving family members, including a couple nieces and nephews that met him when they were really young; he passed away in 1954. I think one of the best parts of this experience was talking to them afterward and hearing their support and how much the movie touched them, how proud of the film they are, and how we captured his spirit and the man they met. Feeling like we paid tribute to him and to history in that way was such a wonderful feeling.
Leslie: Allen, in terms of your character being a real person with morally interesting choices, how did you personally approach that confused moral understanding?
Allen: With any character you have to invest fully in what they were thinking at the time. I completely believe that John Cairncross believed he was doing the right thing. He saw the opportunity to share information with the [other] Allies. It’s in the movie, he said, “We’re on the same side.” There are fantastic books written about whether Cairncross was already working for the MI-6. Did he even know he was working for MI-6? It seems completely implausible that the MI-6 would allow the behavior that Cairncross went about… he was a bad spy and if he was a spy, then MI-6 was equally as bad at trying to find him. The man would drive up with these decrypted codes to the Soviet embassy and leave them on their front door. I think that Cairncross was completely in on it, along with MI-6. In the movie it’s written that [MI-6] doesn’t know, and I like that, but I like that in the story Cairncross has a certain kind of confidence. That comes from knowing secrets, and obviously he knows Turing’s so he has that card to play against him. That’s where that confidence comes from, but I also did hold a sense that there was someone on the inside of MI-6 that knew what he was doing, and maybe [Cairncross] knew that as well. The fact that in his later life he was never prosecuted makes me definitely think that there was deal done there. He obviously knew something that [MI-6] didn’t want out as well. It would be interesting to know what Cairncross had on the establishment itself. We talked about that Cairncross was never convicted of anything, yet Turing was just for being gay.
Leslie: The part I was thinking of is when you hold that card against Turing. How did you approach that as an actor?
Allen: I think the scene to me was also about showing his utter confidence in the fact that what he’s doing is right. The way I played it is that idea of trying to… one of the greatest minds to ever exist, Alan Turing, I like playing it as, “You don’t understand. It’s this simple.” For Cairncross to think it really was, and it was also the comfort and over-confidence in knowing that Cairncross can say something to Alan and it’s not going to go any further. I love that scene because it also shows that they are the only ones in on this right now. They share a common bond of knowing a secret on each other. I love at the end, when [Stewart Menzies] says, “Go your separate ways. You never have to see each other again.” In the scene, it’s a very subtle thing that Benedict did, but I loved it… when that line is said, the two of us give a slight gesture to each other because now that [bond is] broken. We don’t need it any more.
Lauren B.: Building off of that, I was wondering if there were any subtle clues that you put into your performance so when audiences watch the film back, and obviously know you’re a spy, will people notice things that they should’ve picked up on the first time?
Allen: Yeah, there are a couple… especially when going through Alan’s desk, I do a couple of things. But again, you don’t want anyone to even register that at any point because you want that moment at the end when his arm goes up on the shoulder, so you try to avoid that.
Lauren B.: And you shot at Bletchley Park, right?
Allen: We did, yeah. We shot the pub scenes, so all the scenes where we were in the bar.
Leslie: That must’ve been trippy.
Graham: It was weird, yeah. We spent a week at Bletchley Park shooting, which was great. We tried to use as many real locations as we could, so the Sherborne Boarding School, with the scenes of young Alan Turing, was a real location. Detail and accuracy was so important to us and for the actors too, to be in the place where the scenes really happened. We used all real Enigma machines. They are all real and from WWII. As many real props as we could get, we wanted to use. It was spooky when we were at Sherborne and we would walk by a memorial to Christopher Morcom on the wall. You were walking by the real plaque to him as we were going to shoot the scene. It was spooky, but it reminds you that this is a real story about real people who experienced a real tragedy, and our responsibility as filmmakers to get it right.
Lauren B.: So you were able to get your hands on an actual Enigma machine? I know they are hard to come by.
Allen: When they opened it up, because it’s in this wooden box and you have the swastika on the front, and it is (it’s a great line) an instrument of death. When you open it, you get this horrible sense that the messages that went through this led to the deaths of millions of people. The fact that the machine was actually used, I think it came from a submarine. It does, of course, give you such a sense of the story and the responsibilities these people had and the frustrations they had every day. It took a mind like Alan Turing’s to realize you aren’t going to beat a machine without building a bigger, better machine – a machine that can think exponentially faster than the human mind. To be the first person to think that way is incredible, that is why it is so wonderful to be a part of this movie and get his name into the public consciousness.