A Not So Simple Man

8 November 2014

The Imitation Game brings the life of gay mathematician Alan Turing to the big screen. Despite the best of intentions, this is one formula that just doesn’t compute.

Alan Turing is one of the unknown heroes of the twentieth century. As the chief cryptologist at Bletchley Park during World War II, he was instrumental in breaking the Enigma Code – an act hailed by Winston Churchill as the single greatest contribution to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. His experiments and writings underpinned much of the development of modern computer science, and he pioneered early theories about artificial intelligence. His famous test to distinguish artificial intelligence from human beings even found its way into the novels of Philip K Dick and the plot of Bladerunner.

By rights, Turing should be a national hero, feted along the same lines as Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking. Alas, a combination of homophobia and very English passive-aggression consigned him to the scrapheap and an early death. Turing was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence. He was investigated by police in 1952, and tried and found guilty of gross indecency. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he was offered chemical castration as an alternative to prison. The treatment, which consisted of massive injections of the hormone oestrogen, left him impotent and with women’s breasts. Turing was found dead in 1954  from cyanide poisoning. The generally accepted theory was that he killed himself in despair, eating a poison-laced apple in a grim homage to his favourite film, Snow White.

In recent years, there have been some efforts to resuscitate Turing’s life and legacy. In 2009, Gordon Brown (in one of the few honourable moments in his brief tenure as Prime Minister) apologised on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated.” And just last year, the Cameron government pardoned Turing, an apparently symbolic gesture of contrition towards the thousands of men who were similarly convicted.

Hollywood hasn’t been quite as kind to Turing’s memory. The 2001 film Enigma, with a script by Tom Stoppard, made the Turing character a heterosexual who was involved in a love triangle. It seems that a gay mathematician with man boobs just wasn’t leading man material.

Into this void comes the new British film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. The film carries a solemn sense of its own purpose and weighty self-importance. This isn’t just entertainment, you understand – it’s corrective to historical wrongs, that attempts to make Turing both a war hero and a martyr to the evils of State-approved homophobia.

The Imitation Game bears some resemblance to the recent hit film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a masterly study of espionage and homophobia in Cold War Britain. Both films share a gloomy autumnal aesthetic, a young Scandinavian director brought in to provide extra Nordic Noir, and a lot of middle-aged English actors sporting immaculately tailored suits and very bad hair. It’s a well-intentioned project, but deadly in execution. The script is painfully over-written, the acting is earnest and distractingly theatrical, and the story hits every well-worn cliché of the “tortured artist” biopic like the tolling of a funeral bell.

To its credit, it looks pretty. Every scene is polished to a high sheen with the familiar tropes of English Heritage filmmaking. There are stately homes and beautifully composed shots of sunlight falling on wood-panelled libraries. There are pretty boys with puffy lips and chiselled cheekbones who look fetching in woollen jumpers. There is Kiera Knightley, who plays lady maths genius Joan Clarke in period-appropriate twinsets and stockings. There are carefully composed CGI shots of fighter planes and bombed cityscapes and close ups of Londoners looking stoic in bomb shelters. Everything is present and correct, and we aren’t allowed to forget it.

Like A Beautiful Mind, the Oscar winning film about another troubled maths genius, The Imitation Game assumes that its audience has neither the ability nor the interest to understand what Turing’s achievements actually were. Instead, we see Cumberbatch pinning up papers with squiggly diagrams onto a wall, and secreting himself in a shed where he builds a big Frankenstein machine with lots of spinning knobs. “He’s a genius”, the other characters whisper, though no one quite bothers to explain how.

There’s one brief moment towards the end of the film where we get an insight into what might have happened in Hut 8. A random remark by a secretary in a pub provides Turing with the breakthrough he needs to readjust his machine and crack the Enigma code. In that moment, the film springs to life, showing us something of the workings of Turing’s remarkable mind. Otherwise, we have to make do with a series of movie clichés that are meant to signify hard work. Papers are rustled, typewriters are swept dramatically off desks, evil bosses are thwarted, roadblocks are broken through, and Turing’s colleagues put aside their differences and beaver away diligently for the Big Push. While Turing at least is busy with his machine, it’s unclear what anyone else does. In between an awful lot of bicycle riding, Knightley and all the pretty boys mostly just stare at Cumberbatch, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, while he furrows his brow and simulates deep thought.

The film also suffers from the very modern habit of using Turing’s social awkwardness and emotional retardation as shorthand for “genius”. The prickly aspects of Turing’s personality – his strangulated upper-middle-class speech, his introversion and his arrogance – are held up both as virtues and as the butt of several jokes. Of course Turing is a genius, we’re encouraged to think. He’s too busy doing all those complicated sums in his head to be expected to make small talk or say please or thank you. Elsewhere, there are suggestions that Turing was a high-functioning autistic, or just deeply closeted and too frightened to reveal his true self. These are all valid interpretations, but somehow they never coalesce into a satisfying portrait. I wanted to love Turing, or at least be compelled by him. As it was, I never got over my irritation that Cumberbatch was (over-)acting a role rather than embodying a person, and that the film was constantly telling me what I should think of him. Just in case we don’t understand each scene, there’s a character on hand to explain the significance of what we’ve just seen. It’s meant to be helpful, I suppose, especially for audiences who have no idea of the story, but it’s exhausting to sit through.

I was especially disappointed by the film’s timid treatment of Turing’s sexuality. We know from Turing’s biographers that he was mostly unapologetic about his sexuality, and had a physically robust experience of sexual love. The film shows almost nothing of this. The facts of Turing’s sexuality and his arrest are delayed until late in the piece, where it becomes the elephant in the room – the defining tragedy of the narrative arc which is somehow too unsavoury to be shown on screen. The closest the character comes to experiencing affection is passing coded love letters to his school friend Christopher, an apparently chaste relationship that ended with Christopher’s early death. Apart from that, there’s nary a twinge of anything below the waist. We see nothing at all of Turing’s interactions with Arnold Murray, the young man who he was having a relationship with prior to his arrest. Instead, the film concentrates on his friendship with Joan, no doubt in an attempt to femme-up what is an overwhelmingly male story.

This deletion of Turing’s sexual life does him a massive disservice. Turing’s sexuality was an integral part of his life, as it is for most of us. It added to his experience of life as an outsider, and no doubt increased his perceptiveness and fuelled his desire to succeed. It also appears to have brought him a great deal of personal pleasure. But The Imitation Game doesn’t have any time for this. His sexuality is just another nasty little secret to be kept hidden, like the fact of his colleague working as a double agent for the Russians, or the coordinates of bombings that he decodes. The Turing of this film is gay only to the extent that it makes him suffer. The film ends with credits reporting that nearly 50,000 gay men were convicted of homosexual offences between the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 and decriminalisation in 1967. While this is touching, it feels like a unearned bid for martyrdom. Turing and all his fellow victims would, I think, be better commemorated by a more honest depiction of gay desire, rather than this kind of bloodless liberal posturing.

The Imitation Game will, I expect, be a big box office success. It peddles a particular version of English history that’s quietly critical but never really rocks the boat. For audiences who’ve never heard of Turing or who didn’t know that gay men used to be put in prison, the film might even do some good. But it will take other, braver artists to make a better film about Turing: one that reveals him to us in all his intelligence and complexity. He deserves a big, rangey, ambitious and radical treatment – not this pretty, over-art-directed coffin of a film.

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