The Imitation Game: a film that's as much in the closet as Alan Turing was

Turing died for his sexuality, yet here we don't see him even touch another man

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

The Imitation Game

12A, Nationwide

The Imitation Game is a biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who broke the German’s Enigma code during the war, created the blueprint for the modern computer and was then hounded to death by the authorities for being gay, the bastards. It’s a fascinating story, as well as one of those stories that needs to be told, over and over if necessary, but I just wish it had been told here with a little more guts and flair. This is solid, sturdy and offers a few great moments. But it is rather formulaic, and as much in the closet as Turing ever was. Still, a decent if conventional Troubled Genius Film has to be worth any number of Interstellars, which, according to some readers (of the male variety) commenting online, I failed to find the most fulfilling experience of my life because I was ‘on the rag’. Oh, yes. That explains that then. Silly, silly me.

This is directed by Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian otherwise known for the excellent thriller Headhunters. And it is divided into three time zones: 1952, when Turing is arrested for gross indecency and is being questioned by a policeman (Rory Kinnear); the war years, when he is working at Bletchley Park under Commander Denniston (Charles Dance, who actually bothers to slightly act, for a change, and not just do Charles Dance); and as a bullied, unhappy schoolboy with only the one friend, Christopher, to whom he passes notes that are coded in more ways than one. At this point, and before the thought gets away, I would like it noted that Alex Lawther, who plays Turing as a boy, is absolutely outstanding, and his scenes are among the most moving in the film.

But the spine of it, the meat, all happens at Bletchley Park where, in his first interview, Turing convinces Denniston he needs him more than he needs Bletchley, and basically runs circles round him. This is how these biopics work, but it’s still enjoyable, and there are some excellent funny moments. The Imitation Game takes itself seriously but, at the same time, never loses its sense of humour, unlike that other film, the one I would have totally loved if only I hadn’t been suffering from lady troubles. This scene immediately establishes Turing’s character as ‘an odd duck’, to use the words of his mother, although, today, he would probably be described as ‘somewhere on the spectrum’. He doesn’t understand jokes. He doesn’t understand the nuances of social interaction. He avoids eye contact. This is a star vehicle for Cumberbatch and, within the confines of the genre, he runs with it. Turing isn’t especially likable. He is difficult and arrogant and obnoxious, as his fellow code-breakers will discover, but Cumberbatch makes him lovable and vulnerable and heroic, and awards him a depth he otherwise wouldn’t have. (I would also like it to be noted that, much as I adore Cumberbatch, when he recently announced his engagement I did not weep, as I’m an optimist at heart, and the way I look at it is this: he may one day get divorced!)

Railly, railly posh: Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke
Railly, railly posh: Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

But back to Bletchley, where Turing is teamed with those fellow code-breakers, including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a brilliant mathematician and all-round brainbox who is, of course, mistaken for a secretary when she first arrives, as can happen when men have fixed ideas about women. Inevitably, everyone comes round to Turing in the end, but it’s Joan who befriends and defends him from the off, and to whom he becomes engaged. (She knows, but doesn’t care. It’ll be a marriage of minds, she tells him. She is rather marvellous, and also speaks railly, railly posh.)

What the film does well it does very well. It is neatly tailored for a general audience and doesn’t throw a ton of maths and science in your face. There are no fifth dimensions or wormholes and no one writes equations on a blackboard. But we perfectly understand the race against time, what breaking Enigma would mean, and Tyldum makes it all remarkably suspenseful. We also perfectly understand all the ironies; that here was a man uncovering secrets for the nation while hiding his own; that here was a man who saved many, many lives, but could not save himself.

But — and it’s quite a big ‘but’ — this just isn’t daring enough; it’s frustratingly safe. We never see Turing grappling with his own sexuality. Did he accept it? Or not? There are no sex scenes. We don’t see him ever touch another man. He died for his sexuality, but here it rather feels like a footnote. That said, and despite its limitations, I would still maintain it is worth any number of Interstellars and has plenty more to say. Damn. Must be ‘on the rag’. Again.

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  • JimHHalpert

    “He died for his sexuality.”

    There is simply no evidence to support this. His gayness was the least interesting thing about Turing.

    • Indeed, it is quite likely that his death was due to the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus for gold electroplating spoons.

      • Hywel James

        Is this an ironic comment by any chance? It seems a curious, indeed surely unique, circumstance for a fatal accident.

      • john lyttle

        That’s the way I want to go.

      • ninoinoz

        Here’s the rather plausible story.

        Turing may have been a genius mathematician, but certainly not a genius chemist.

    • john lyttle

      Spoken like the sly wanting-to-appear-above-it-all homophobe you are.

      • Swanky

        That’s a nasty swipe and completely unjustified. A man can be above his gayness, you know. And I’d love to know what your definition of ‘homophobe’ is. Probably it’s rubbish, to judge by this comment.

        • PaulBrownsey

          If John Lyttle disagrees with you, it is rather likely he will say you are a homophobe.

        • john lyttle

          ‘Above’ his gayness? So… it’s something you have to be raise yourself above, hey? Most telling. My definition of homophobe? You – and, yes, even that sterling, famous, long term campaigner for gay rights, Paul Brownsey, featured at his wittiest and most devastatingly biting immediately below.

    • Swanky

      Certainly: it’s the least interesting thing about anybody.

    • MikeF

      Quite – nor was he ‘hounded to death by the authorities’. He died in mysterious circumstances that may have been suicide or that may have been misadventure. Turing was found guilty of what was at the time a crime – there is no getting away from that – but the law has subsequently changed. The really important thing is to understand why the law has changed.
      It has done so because Britain at the time had a democratic political culture with a free press and free speech and there is no more powerful means in the world for analysing cultures, laws and societies and bringing about change in them when that is deemed appropriate. It has not done so because people alive today are in any way better than or more enlightened than the people who were around in Turing’s time. Those people were not ‘bastards’ – or ‘bigots’ to use the term the modern ‘liberal-left’ feels it is entitled to bestow on anyone from any time whose opinions they dislike – they were people acting within the conventions of their time but who also supported the political culture that enabled those conventions to be questioned and ultimately changed.

  • Gary Johnson

    Look forward to seeing this all the more for there being no gay sex scenes and not seeing him ever touch another man. Although a little girl on girl action never goes amiss.

    Ps you were right about Interstellar regardless of the time of month.

    • john lyttle

      Consider your big, butch heterosexual persona on this thread established. Why you’d want to make such a point of it isn’t even a little bit suspicious or overdone.

      PS Lovely hat.

      • Gary Johnson

        Dear John, It bothers me not what people get up to in their private lives but I admit to feeling a little queasy if I see two men indulge in anything more then a quick peck.

        Thank you for your kind remarks regard the hat. I believe a modicum of sartorial elegance is a necessity for everyone regardless of sexuality.

        • Swanky

          Most people think that what gays do is revolting, they just don’t say so. I hope that your avatar is not Idi Amin or some other murderous dictator.

          • Gary Johnson

            The one that served in our Kings African Rifles? Yes, it is him.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “It bothers me not what people get up to in their private lives”
          Providing they don’t damage the furniture and the bedding. Those brown stains can be the devil to get out.

        • PaulBrownsey

          Maybe you should seek treatment for your queasiness.

          • Gary Johnson

            Maybe you should comment a bit quicker than 2 months after the event.

  • Viv

    The entire movie is about people who think differently and this concept includes Turing’s Aspergian thought processes, his obsession with logic and a machine that could think, Joan’s attempts to break free of the era’s misogyny and yes, his sexuality.

    It is too simplistic to say that ‘he died for his sexuality’ because that fails to appreciate Turing as a complex human being influenced over the course of his life by many factors both related and unrelated to his sexuality.

    The point is that when we as a society make judgements based on a person’s social demeanour, gender, or sexuality, etc. we are the poorer for it. Obviously Turing’s sexuality was a major factor in his suicide, but he lived a life that did not conform to society’s norms in many varied ways (for example, as evidenced by his support of Joan and gender equality).

    It does him a disservice to assume that his demise was solely related to his sexuality and it does a disservice to the film to dismiss it for not making it all about his sexuality.

    • Marshal Phillips

      He happened to be gay; but it’s not uncommon for mathematicians to be eccentric regardless of orientation. Adding gay sex scenes wouldn’t have advanced his unique story. That he was gay was well established.

      • john lyttle

        The point is that after doing so much for his country his country then viciously tormented and hounded him, and, yes, to an early grave. Also well established.

        • Marshal Phillips

          Sorry, wasn’t responding to you; agree the govt mistreated him very badly! My comment was responding to the movie review “we don’t even see him touch another man”. Don’t need to, in my view, for his biopic.

          • PaulBrownsey

            Yes. Nice gays don’t actually touch other men, and they die at the end of the film.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Many nice guys do touch and fuck and even live. In the instant case, nevertheless, the character’s orientation was very clearly established.

    • john lyttle

      The point is that after doing so much for his country his country then
      tormented and hounded him, and, yes, to an early grave.

    • Swanky

      on a person’s social demeanour
      What does that mean? We have to make judgements: it’s called ‘civilization’.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Keira Knightley’s role in “Imitation Game” does so remind one of “Atonement”

  • Cim Thayne

    You were definitely right about Interstellar by the way, total claptrap.

    • Dusty Ayres

      No, it wasn’t. The problem with people like you is, no science fiction movie would be good even if was less orientated towards space opera like Interstellar was.

  • Swanky

    yet here we don’t see him even touch another man
    That’s a relief, then.

    I find it odd that some people think that gayness is something that is chosen. Who on earth would choose it? It’s hard enough being hetero!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      However, when you take a hard look at the home comfort providers at the Brit end of the ranch, you’d be forgiven for giving those pretty boys a second look.
      Jack, Japan Alps

  • justejudexultionis

    Did he really commit suicide? He was conducting an experiment involving cyanide at the time of his death and a modern court would almost certainly have determined that there was insufficient evidence to rule his death as suicide.

    • Peter Stroud

      I wonder why a mathematician would carry out an experiment involving cyanide.

      • JimHHalpert

        Why wouldn’t he? He used to use the lathes in Cambridge’s mechanical engineering workshop to build analog computers. He used to be a close-to-world-class marathon runner. He developed a theory of biological morphogenesis which was shown to be correct earlier this year. Electroplating his own silverware would seem almost like an afterthought to such a doer.

  • Gary Johnson

    After seeing it today all I will say is that I would be happy to see it again.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I hope to pick up a copy of “The Imitation Game” on DVD (unofficial channels) next month. Up until the early 1960s, homosexuality (gross indecency) was illegal in Britain. As incidentally was suicide. Selected doctors had ruled that homosexuality was an incurable disease that some men were born with: So equivalent to punishing people for being left-handed. In class-consious Britain there was also the stigma of “associating with a person that was clearly your social inferior”. And as women were viewed as inferior, any man taking the woman’s position and role was “letting down the side”. Any movie that calls attention to the disgraceful way the Establishment treated Alan Turin (he should have been awarded a knighthood for shortening the War by some 18 months) is a winner in my book.
    Interesting that in less than 50 years, homosexuality has gone from being illegal to fast becoming the life style of choice.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit (open to offers)

    • zcastaux

      There may have been other reasons why the British Govt. didn’t like this man. You should think that over carefully. Persons such as B Britten and E Elgar did not get hounded and harassed, I believe.

      • PaulBrownsey

        Why mention Elgar? Do you have the idea that he was gay?

        • zcastaux

          I have no ‘ideas’ about Britten and Elgar. I’m sure that you, as a follower of culture at all levels, will do any necessary research for yourself.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “no one writes equations on a blackboard”

    That’s trash culture UK for you, where learning and education are belittled as elitist. Almost down to the level of US movies where nothing significant is shown in writing, on the assumption that a significant percentage of the target audience can hardly read.

  • vieuxceps2

    What a tin ear you have. “railly” sounds nothing like a posh “really”.Try “rearly “.

    • zcastaux

      It’s a sendup. Yes, railly.

  • SPW

    Again DR says nothing about cinema. Nothing nothing nothing. Use of camera? Colour? Cutting? Sound? Setting? (All primary-school level analysis).

    Nothing but whether she enjoyed the film or not. DR is a really weak-point in the Speccie’s Arts line-up. What qualifies her for the post?

  • WinstonSmith2012

    “He doesn’t understand jokes. He doesn’t understand the nuances of social interaction… Turing isn’t especially likable. He is difficult and arrogant and obnoxious… but Cumberbatch makes him lovable and vulnerable…”

    Sheldon Lee “Moonpie” Cooper.

  • sajem80

    “There are no sex scenes”: what a ridiculous comment. What would you have, Turing cottaging in the local WC, cruising some squaddie. I’m sure almost no details are known about Turing’s sex-life so how would the imagined and likely inept inclusion of this have advanced the story of his dignity and heroism, how would there even have been time. It’s as if you imagine there were gay men in 1940’s Britain such as there are now, instead of criminalized, self-hating homsexuals living in secrecy, the latter being a great general theme of the film, interestingly explored since his childhood. Silly review all round.

  • Little Towhee

    By not adding an explicit sex scene of any variety, I would be more likely to take my 13 year old son to see this movie. I think the director was quite smart to leave out sex scenes.

    Besides, what’s the imagination for anyway? Looking for sex scenes, there’s plenty of cheap/free porn of all shades and flavors available online.

    And the dialogue between Turing and the investigator at the table actually gives some subtle exposure to Turing’s thinking about our diverse humanity (not just concerning sexuality). Then in the conversation at the end where Turing is taking the medication, the character seems to express some doubt about his homosexuality in light of what he would lose (his work, his passion, his “Christopher”).

    I agree the pacing was suspenseful for this type of movie. It kept moving and didn’t get stuck.

  • Zhad

    The movie is not about his gayness. In fact, it is meant to be a footnote. You wanted it to be about that, but it wasn’t. Which is probably better, because it shows it as being another attribute of human existence that shouldn’t change how we’re viewed.

    THAT was the point of the story.

    I guess YOU are good enough to judge.

  • Ivan Engel

    Pathetic review. Especially the part where you bash Interstellar. Spoken like a true mediocre.