Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Alan Turing was one of the biggest heroes of World War II, right? His work cracking the Nazi enigma codes brought forward the Allied victory by an estimated two years, saving fourteen million lives and developing the predecessor for the modern computer in the process. A top bloke. 

Naturally, society repaid Turing by prosecuting him for his homosexuality, treating him with chemical castration which drove him to suicide, and omitting him entirely from Dougray Scott thriller Enigma. It took some time, but Turing was pardoned for his so-called crimes in 2013 and, in 2014, finally finds himself the subject of a film – portrayed by Sherlock himself Benedict Cumberbatch in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.

Flitting between three periods of Turing’s life, The Imitation Game shows us Turing’s codebreaking career at Bletchley Park, along with his schooltime relationship with first love Christopher, and his prosecution in later life. The bulk of the film, naturally, is in the wartime drama, as Turing struggles to prove both to his team and to Commander Charles Dance that his codebreaking machine will work. It’s surprisingly tense for a film about a man making a computer, with the team constantly against the clock, and the shocking ethical dilemma they face once they do crack Enigma – just how much of their intel can they use without letting the Germans know their code’s been cracked?

The emotional focus of this section is where the film’s come under criticism, for Graham Moore's script explores Turing’s relationship with the talented Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley); while he’s not allowed a woman on his team, Turing sneaks work to her discreetly, and builds up a lasting friendship along the way. While the story of Turing championing Clarke as she overcomes the sexism of the time is great, the film’s focus on their relationship has been decried by some critics as a defocus away from Turing's sexuality and therefore a cynical move to gain a broad audience. Indeed, there’s a distinct lack of any substance or grit to the theme of his sexuality – other than some coy looks between young Turing and Christopher, we never actually see him with any male partners.

On the other hand, while we don’t see his sexuality, we certainly hear about it, and it’s impossible to say the issue’s glossed over when we’re faced with heartbreaking scenes of Turing admitting he can never have feelings for the woman he’s had to take as a fiancĂ©e and of a great war hero turned into a shivering mess as a result of punishment for, as he puts it, “asking a man to touch my penis”.

Also, I don’t believe it’s fair to criticise the film for aiming at a wide audience. Turing's story is not as well known as it should be – a family member of mine hadn't even heard of him before this film. If a populist biopic can increase awareness of the great work Turing did – and The Imitation Game does make that clear – then that is a good thing. But would a little bit of gay shagging have done too much harm? There is the old stereotype that mainstream audiences would be put off by it, but one look through Tumblr would show that there’s definitely an audience out there for Benedict Cumberbatch taking his clothes off.

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch – he’s great, of course. He has the whole arrogant yet insecure genius shtick down to a tee. It's what he does. His Turing is basically Sherlock but with the social awkwardness played for sympathy rather than for laughs. The real surprise is the kid who plays young Alan. He's incredible. The way he experiences his first great love and first great loss, without saying it out loud, hiding his feelings from the world, yet clearly betraying them in his face. That kid's going to do well for himself. The supporting cast is full of exactly the actors you want in a Posh British Period Drama – Knightley, Dance, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong, who was born to play the heads of secret government organisations. 

The Imitation Game is a very impressive film – it may be another Posh British Period Drama, but it’s a bloody good one; a compelling portrayal of an incredibly sad, incredibly important story that needs to be told. Is it softened, Hollywoodised? Yes, to the extent that it talks about Turing’s sexuality rather than showing it. But that doesn't remove the celebration of Turing's successes and the sadness of his fate.


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