Cumberbatch vs. Jacobi: Breaking The Imitation Game Code

November 24th, 2014 § 4 comments

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

As prestige movies open pell-mell in the next few weeks, and Oscar campaigns already underway blaze into full public awareness, one of the contenders will surely be The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. It tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who is widely credited with breaking the Nazi’s “Enigma” code and whose name is regularly invoked in discussions of artificial intelligence, specifically over how or whether we might one day create a machine whose thoughts are indistinguishable from those of a human.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

As with any major film, especially one with Oscar hopes, there will be a near-avalanche of stories about the film: its director, its stars, its writer – and the man who inspired it. I don’t want to give much away for those unfamiliar with the tale, but Turing’s life truly encompassed World War II intrigue, intellectual triumph, reprehensible bias, persecution and injustice, and great tragedy. There’s going to be a cottage industry of stories on Turing – paeans, revisionist history, alternative views, and so on, right up through Oscar night.

For many, this may be their first encounter with the Turing story and they’ll be drawn in by the considerable glamour and talent of Cumberbatch and Knightley (I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m going solely on the advance word and promotion). There’s a cautionary part of the story that’s well worth being told many times over.

Breaking The Code

Broadway logo for Derek Jacobi in Breaking The Code

But for theatregoers with moderately long memories (I count myself among them), The Imitation Game will come as something less than a revelation historically, because the West End and Broadway beat the movies to the punch almost 30 years ago, with Derek Jacobi as Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking The Code. Like The Imitation Game, it was based on Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma.

Breaking The Code played for six months in New York 1987-88, following on the heels of Jacobi’s triumphant performances in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s repertory of Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing (both opposite Sinead Cusack); I was fortunate enough to have seen all three, and it cemented my deep admiration for Jacobi as one of the finest actors of his generation. As for the play, while I long believed that it was Jacobi who truly made the experience remarkable, and unrepeatable, I saw the show years later at the Berkshire Theatre Festival with Jamey Sheridan in the Turing role, and to my surprise I was once again fascinated and deeply moved.

Now of course vastly more people see most movies than see a play, but as Imitation Game launches, I was thrilled to discover that Jacobi’s performance has been preserved, in a 1996 BBC adaptation of the play by Hugh Whitemore, available online in its entirety.

While it is an adaptation, not simply a film of the play, the TV version will give us a chance to see two portrayals of one man by two superb actors, refracted through the views of different writers and directors – and societal growth and change regarding LGBTQ life and rights – at an interval of 30 years.


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  • Alina Gutierrez

    This is amazing! I’ve seen The Imitation Game, and it is an extremely well-done film, with a strong performance by Benedict. Excited to see how this compares. Even though The Imitation Game isn’t the first account that tells of Turing’s life, it is a great way to re-introduce his story to those who were not familiar with it previously. 🙂

    • Susan Wood

      IMHO, “Breaking the Code” is much better. It deals more with the sex scandal that destroyed Turing’s career, and spends less time on the cracking of the Enigma code, but it also allows us to hear Turing talking passionately and in detail about mathematics. I don’t know if the scriptwriters of “Imitation Game” were too lazy to do their homework or whether they thought the great unwashed would find discussions of math boring, but whenever anyone in “IG” asks Turing for an explanation he waves it off with “You wouldn’t understand.” In “BTC,” Turing is more than delighted to tell people all about his mathematical research, whether he thinks they’ll be able to follow it or not (and BTW, although his speeches don’t seem to be dumbed down, I could follow them just fine, and I’m no mathematician).

      “IG” resorts to a few very hokey moments of high drama in the lab in order to make cryptography seem more sexy, but the way “BTC” depicts it, the process is far more believable. For one thing, the team didn’t crack the code just once — they had to keep on working at it, as the Germans added new complexities to the system. Turing does describe a “eureka” moment when it occurred to him that he could build a calculating machine, which until that point he’d considered only a hypothetical possibility. However, we don’t see people rushing around in a frenzy while the music on the sound track swells. And the cryptography team never had to make the wrenching decisions about when or when not to act on the information they’d discovered. That was the job of the military high command. There’s a conversation early in “BTC” that alludes to the moral responsibilities involved in the work, but no big, tearful, and totally unhistorical scene like the one in “IG.”

      It’s amusing to see how Cumberbatch plays Turing as rather like Sherlock, while Jacobi played him as being a bit like Claudius. In both cases, I suspect, the leads were cast because they’d played brilliant but quirky characters. Both performances are excellent, but the script of “BTC” makes it the better film.

      • I was very happy to find this blog post comparing the two films, and it makes many great points. I agree with Susan, though: It goes a bit too easy on TIG. I would add to Susan’s insightful and eloquent comment that TIG plays much too loose with historical fact and does not give a realistic view of his contributions to the war. BTC is a much better film all around.

        • Susan Wood

          Thanks, Jason! Alas, some of my fellow fans of Benedict Cumberbatch seem to regard me as a bit of a traitor. Since I yield to no one as a passionate Cumberbunny, I should give him the credit he deserves for a brilliant performance of the character as it was written. My issue is with the script. The wriers decided to give Turing the full mad genius treatment.

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