The Imitation Game and the slippery search for greatness

Britain is nothing if not arrogant, at the very least in terms of its name. How many other countries attach a statement of quality to their name: Great Britain? Of course there may well be historical reasons for this, and it may not actually be meant as a moniker of significance or quality; but as a citizen of the country it’s always smacked of hubris.

I’ve also always found the whole ‘great nation’ thing a little fatuous. How do we ascertain if a country is great? I hear many different claims for a country to be the greatest on earth, but seldom any independent verification of this. How do you judge a nation? How do you rank in terms of greatness? Most nations are great in the eyes of their own leader or citizens; but it seems a little aimless to try some sort of serious assessment of this. Why does one have to be better than the other?

All this was in my mind during The Imitation Game, a true-story adaptation of one of the Second World War’s more remarkable stories. Alan Turing – the subject of the film, played with characteristic commitment and insight by Benedict Cumberbatch – was the man who led the team which broke the German Enigma code, effectively shortening and/or winning the war for the Allies and saving a load of lives into the bargain. In doing so he not only achieved what many believed at the time to be impossible, but he also laid the template for every computer ever built. By any stretch of the imagination, surely Turing’s was a great British achievement.

It’s certainly presented as such in this compelling and enjoyable film. Even if you are familiar with the story it’s never less than utterly engaging; it’s a story I know well and I still had to restrain an air-punch at the vital moment. It’s a film that’s hard not to enjoy. This is achieved with the understanding that the events of the film were a great moment in a great passage of history for Great Britain. It’s not really a flag-waving film (apart from the entirely fair, correct and brief footage of people celebrating the war’s end) so much as it’s trying to be an honest and factual one. This was a great moment.

(spoiler alert – if you don’t know Turing’s story and don’t want part of the film revealed, skip to the next paragraph)

Or was it? For the film doesn’t leave it there. The euphoria is leavened by what comes next. The code-breaking is intercut with a post-war police investigation into Turing’s private life, and scenes from his childhood. At the same time as his unique role in the war effort is discovered, so is his (then illegal) homosexuality. Given the choice between prison or chemical castration, he opted for the latter so he could keep working, Not long after, he committed suicide. Along with thousands of men of the era, his life was forever stained. It was only in 2013 that Turing received a posthumous royal pardon.

Not so great. Even within the essence of an undeniably great British achievement are the seeds of something deeply shameful and unnerving. Greatness, it turns out, is a slippery and complex concept. We think about too simply. We see something admirable, and christen it with a title. Closer examination reveals it’s not so simple. Whether it’s a person or a country, a team or a charity, no one is entirely great. There’s greatness in everyone and every group, every team and nation; there’s also cruelty, shame, abuse, bullying, perversity and hate and any sin you care to name. There’s only One truly deserving of the title ‘Great’; really all other uses of the term should be with a small letter and a careful qualification.

The Imitation Game is a very good film, but with a keen eye for British irony, not a great one. It’s finely directed with a keen eye for detail and the importance of a good story. Occasionally it’s just a little too mechanical to soar, too safe to really provoke in the way it perhaps could. It is, though, very good, exciting, funny and admirable. You won’t be let down and you will, if you allow yourself, be made to think and look more closely at the previously untouchable and unsullied citizens of that far-off island called ‘Greatness’.

I rated the film 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com

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