Alan Turing is one of the largely un-sung heroes of the the 20th century. A genius mathematician, the man who cracked the Enigma Machine, god father of computers, his work completely transformed the world we live in. Yet for all his genius, he was born into a homophobic society that did little to embrace Turing as he was. The result was that Turing was later found guilty of the deplorable act of having sex with a man and was chemically castrated, forced to take estrogen and ultimately committed suicide. It is his story that Director Morten Tyldum and Writer Graham Moore tell in ‘The Imitation Game’ (a reference to the theoretical question, “Can computers think?”), all be it by taking enough liberties with the source material that the Turing presented on screen shares little more then a name with the man.
The film focuses on Turing’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) work cracking the Enigma Machine, an encryption device used by Nazis, with a group of several other individuals at Bletchley Park during the height of World War II. The film begins with Turing’s arrival at Bletchley and then follows him for the next few years as he works to crack the code. Making full use of cinematic conventions, the film occasionally cuts to scenes which explore Turing’s time at boarding school when, as a boy, he fell in love with a fellow classmate Christopher (whose name would later grace the computer Turing used to crack the Enigma code). The film also jumps to the 1950’s when Turing was investigated by a member of the Manchester police after a neighbor reported a noise complaint, leading to the public discovery of Turing’s homosexuality and his subsequent chemical castration.
The film is exceptionally well done. The pace, the style, and the performances from Cumberbatch’s electrifying portrayal, to Kiera Knightly’s performance as Joan Clarke, one of the Turing’s fellow mathematicians, are award worthy. [Special mention to Mark Strong as Major General Stewart Menzies, who is both HAWT and hilarious.] Even the color palate is exceptional. The film itself is so seductive in its construction that it almost succeeds in disguising it’s rather insidious content.
It is perhaps fitting that a filmic homage to a man who was executed by his country for his sexuality, would both perpetuate and raise some alarming concerns about the portrayal of gay sexuality in cinema. Many have been disappointed that the film did not include any explicitly gay scenes, which at first I was not terribly upset by. However, as time passed I could not shake the creeping feeling that making a film about a man who died for his homosexual desire and not including a moment where that desire was rendered visible, occludes his sexuality and enacts a moment of cinematic castration. The memory of Turing is desexualized. In reflecting on the film, I find that, though I love it as a cinematic piece, it is a rather appalling biopic that takes to many liberties with the source material. It is homophobic and ultimately presents gay sexuality as a solitary, mechanized and dispassionate sexuality.
Cumberbatch’s Turing is portrayed not so much as a gay man, but as a man in love with a machine. The film transposes his early ‘homosexual’ awakening for Christopher-the-dead-friend, onto Christopher-the-machine where it remains for the rest of the film. (This also never happened, Turing never named the machine Christopher.) This film presents gay sexuality as a pre-pubescent sexuality that, in Turing’s case, never matures and thus renders him ‘incapable’ of loving a woman. He desires codes and machines, for they remind him of his one sexual attraction. By overly expanding his relationship with Joan Clarke, the film pays simple lip service to his status as a homosexual man and narratively does what it can to present him as either asexual or perhaps even straight.
Finally the film invents a scene where the Enigma Code has been broken and Turing stops his team from letting the high command know they have cracked the code, for fear that stopping an impending attack would alert the Nazi’s to the fact that the code had been cracked. In this moment, Turing sheds the last vestiges of his humanity and becomes something else; something cold, calculating, machine-like, prompting the title of the film, the Imitation Game. (Like many historic Hollywood representations of gays as villainous, he is so divested from the world of procreative sex, becomes an angle of death. This film, which is so quick to dispense of any narrative based in reality for a cinematic plot line, uses Turing’s sexuality to legitimize his ability to dispassionately de-connect from the world and make these incredibly hard choices. Though Turing is undoubtedly the ‘hero’ of this narrative, this film makes sure that he remains firmly within the backwards, Archetypal, Hollywood framework of queer as killer.
I wanted this film to be something that it was not. I hungered for authenticity over cinematic storytelling, for the representation of Alan Turing as the genius he was, not as a characterization designed to maximize profits. It’s a beautiful and gripping film. But before we laud its praises for having a central ‘gay’ character, let us take the time to reflect on how he was represented. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Should you be critical? Totally. In having Turing be the only gay character presented on screen, (Christopher was by all accounts not gay, and the film leaves this rather ambiguous) Turing becomes a synecdoche for the ‘gay’ man. Turing’s relationship with Christopher-the-computer then, for me, becomes the ‘gay/queer’ relationship that is the object of study. Personally I am rather interested in the mechanization of sexual desire, specifically how sex apps like Grindr are changing gay identities, and I found myself after the film meditating on this presentation of a man obsessed with a machine as some sort of nod towards shifts occurring within contemporary gay culture. I’d love to hear your thoughts.