Saturday, January 17, 2015

“The Imitation Game” Might Have Been More Enigmatic

I imagine that gay icon is the last thing Alan Turing would have wanted to end being, but that is what “The Imitation Game” ends making him.

NOTE: This review contains spoilers if you don’t know much about the life of Alan Turing.

Benedict Cumberbatch, star of TV’s “Sherlock,” is brilliant as the British mathematician, Nazi code–breaker, and grandfather of the thing we now call the computer; and director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore (working from a book by Andrew Hodges) create an affecting triptych of Turing’s life.

In the left panel of the triptych is Turing’s experience as a lonely boy at a British boarding school who sends coded messages to his first love, another boy named Christopher; in the broad center are the war years, when Turing headed up a unit charged with breaking the Nazi code known as Enigma, a feat that may have shortened the war by as many as four years; and on the right is the 1952 booking of Turing for gross indecency, or homosexual acts.

The film’s action moves from panel to panel, flashing back and forth brilliantly. This serves to wrap the central historical drama of the film—breaking the Nazi code—in a second personal drama, that of Turing’s homosexuality, necessarily closeted until his conviction.

Then comes the final message, however. End titles say that less than two years after his conviction, Turing committed suicide. Next comes the factoid that 49,000 men were convicted of indecency under British law between 1885 and 1969. Finally, we are told of the British government’s mea culpas to Turing, including a posthumous pardon by QE II in 2013.

In less than a minute, the filmmakers turn Turing from an ambiguous genius to a case proving how wrong we all were about homosexuality. Personally, I think the film would have been much more convincing—even about homosexuality—if it had stopped short of these announcements. A statement made repeatedly by characters in the film is one we all can identify with, and the filmmakers might have settled for this:

“Sometimes the people who no one imagines can do anything end doing the things no one can imagine.” That statement seems to include every possible sort of outsider-contributor, whether gay or straight, whether a mathematician, an artist, or even a saint.

A cursory examination of Turing’s life left me wondering what had been falsified and what had been left out in order to reveal him as a misunderstood gay genius. On three occasions, the film shows Turing running out of doors in track clothes. What the film does not say explicitly is that Turing was a marathoner who almost qualified for the 1948 British Olympic team and sometimes ran the 40 miles from his wartime post at Bletchley Park to meetings in London. I would have liked to know that.

More trivially perhaps, the film left out eccentric details that might have humanized Turing more, such as these found in his Wiki entry:

In the first week of June each year he would get a bad attack of hay fever, and he would cycle to the office wearing a service gas mask to keep the pollen off. His bicycle had a fault: the chain would come off at regular intervals. Instead of having it mended he would count the number of times the pedals went round and would get off the bicycle in time to adjust the chain by hand. Another of his eccentricities is that he chained his mug to the radiator pipes to prevent it being stolen.

Also, the film fails to note that after the death of his boyfriend Christopher, Turing, the grandson of a clergyman, became an atheist. I don’t say that this fact proves or explains anything, but it might have given richer context to his increasingly obsessive work with machines that “think.” Perhaps the filmmakers considered this aspect of Turing’s character irrelevant.

As a former boarding school student who sometimes felt ostracized himself, I found the boyhood scenes most moving. Alex Lawther as the young Turing is just short of heart-breaking. Cumberbatch succeeds in making the adult Turing a complex hero whom almost no one likes. The exception is one of my favorite actresses, Keira Knightley, as the beautiful, brilliant colleague to whom he proposes.

As the legend on the movie poster suggests, Turing was himself an enigma. I think that point might have been better made by not explaining him so simplistically in the end.

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