How Great Is The Imitation Game?

Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech in The Imitation Game


Alan Turing, the British mathematician, cryptologist, and early computer scientist, is widely known only by his namesake assessment for artificial intelligence, the “Turing Test.” But in addition to being a brilliant scientist and a World War II hero for cracking the German “Enigma” code, Turing was also a homosexual man, a fact that would ultimately lead to his arrest and forced chemical castration at the hands of his government—and his subsequent suicide. The Imitation Game, which opens in theaters on Nov. 28, represents the first major motion picture to offer an account of his life, and it focuses as much on his sexuality as on his professional accomplishments. In the following chat, Outward’s editors discuss their reactions to the film. (Note: This conversation contains spoilers.)

J. Bryan Lowder: My dearest June, am I wrong in recalling that as the final title cards flashed at the end of The Imitation Game—the new Alan Turing biopic out from director Morten Tyldum that should win all the prizes—you shared my sudden affliction of wetness around the eyes? I shouldn’t be coy: This was a damn good movie—not perfect, but very effective as both a spritely (somewhat fictionalized) wartime genre adventure and a deeply moving recuperation of one of the greatest gays who ever lived. I am sending everyone to it this holiday season. Surely you’re doing the same.

June Thomas: Bryan! I’m as secretive about the width of my sentimental streak as those brave Bletchley Parkers were about their role in defeating both fascism and communism. But while I might be a bit coy about how many tissues I got through, I have no problem saying that I liked the film very much. There was just a tiny bit of clunkiness in the dialogue, which I’m sure we’ll get to later, but like you, I’ll be encouraging everyone I know to see it in these prime movie-going days of winter.

Lowder: Well, since this dialogue is sure to be rife with praise, perhaps it’s worth starting with our few quibbles. I do agree that the writing was a bit jejune in moments; that cringe-inducing “sometimes the people from whom you expect the least” leitmotif sounded like it was ginned up specifically for an Oscar clip reel. But even those missteps weren’t that bad, given the superb quality of your British compatriots’ performances. Others have written on the historical inaccuracies of the script, and while I find some of the incongruities disappointing (the code-breaking machine was not named Christopher, after Turing’s first schoolboy love), none of what I’ve read so far has troubled me that much—all changes seemed fairly in service of the drama.

The only thing that I maybe wish we could have seen more of was Turing’s experience of his own sexuality. While his homo-nature is certainly not hidden in the film, it’s more talked about than lived in, if you know what I mean. That’s not to say that we needed a gay sex scene, as some have suggested; the omission of that sort of thing seems plausible to me given the period of intense work on which this film focuses. Rather, it’s just disappointing that homosexuality is always presented (sympathetically) as a problem for Turing, rather than a source of happiness. (I’m not really counting the school crush here, since it’s not entirely self-aware and in any case curtailed.) I cannot say whether this would have made the movie “better,” but I do wish we had seen a flash of Turing getting some pleasure out of his sexual orientation, even if only for a fling or something.

Thomas: I know what you mean. I wish that there had been a vague suggestion that Turing’s sexuality was something other than a burden to him. By having his great love (and savior figure) be a lad from his pre-sexual youth, the film doesn’t let us see Turing feeling sexually and/or emotionally fulfilled. At the same time, that feels like a reasonable narrative choice rather than a copout, because Turing lived in a time and place when the typical experience of male homosexuality would be worry and furtiveness rather than joy and celebration. And it also fits with the portrayal of Turing as an extraordinary figure. He wasn’t normal, and thank goodness for that. As Joan Clarke tells him after he has cracked Enigma, “No one normal could’ve done that.” Biopics are usually an extended round of applause for the outliers among us, but this film also managed to show that being different—sexually, creatively, socially—can also be tremendously lonely and isolating.

I’m curious what you made of Turing’s relationship with Joan. I liked that it was a meeting of minds—she was one of the few people on his level, mathematically speaking—and I appreciated that he told her he was gay, but that disclosure struck me as a bit anachronistic. In a way, in proposing marriage he was trying to rescue her, to save her from wasting her talents by being stuck at home with her parents, but she also almost saved him from gay leper-dom.

Lowder: Yeah, Joan and Alan’s relationship seemed like something Dan Savage would dream up. But as far as I can tell from the historical record, Joan knew about Alan’s proclivities from the get-go but felt that their intellectual relationship was enough to build a marriage. That didn’t work out in the end, but the two of them were wildly advanced for their time—or ours, for that matter—in being able to conceptualize marriage as companionate or about something other than sex-based romance. Overall, I was pleased with the way the movie treated this; as Jeffrey Bloomer complained in Outward back when the first trailer was released, it seemed like the filmmakers were trying to sell the movie as a love story between Cumberbatch and Knightley, but the final product is thankfully much more complicated than that.

The film is smart about other things, too. For example, l loved how the title The Imitation Game —which was Turing’s original name for the famous “Turing test” of artificial intelligence—took on many valences throughout the story. It has the technical meaning, but it also applies to the struggle for Turing, who at least in this portrayal, seemed to lie somewhat on the autism spectrum in his inability to deal with social cues and conversation, as well as the challenge many a gay man has faced in “imitating” straight male behavior—the great pub scene with the other Bletchley boys was particularly effective in this regard, with Turing blanching during a joke about straight oral sex.

Thomas: Since we’re in the big wet kiss section of our dialogue, let me single out the thing I liked most: I thought the film did a lovely job of juxtaposing the way that some kinds of secrecy are valorized while others are deemed suspicious. As a native Mancunian who is tired of seeing residents of my home city perpetually portrayed as dumb thugs, I thought Rory Kinnear was great as Detective Nock, the cop who was unconvinced by Turing’s account of the break-in at his home. Since Turing was a boffin, and since there was no information available about his wartime service, Nock made some reasonable deductions and figured he must be a spy. In fact, of course, the thing Turing had in common with most of the Cambridge ring was homosexuality. By punishing homosexuality so brutally, the system made gay men act like spies. And the Official Secrets Act, not to mention the desire to keep fooling the Soviet bloc, meant that the people who had accomplished such amazing deeds at Bletchley Park had to remain silent about what they’d done. I find that denial of credit—however necessary—heartbreaking, though that reaction may just be an indication of how thoroughly I’m a product of our narcissistic, oversharing age.

Lowder: Oh, I share your sadness at the denial of credit, and I was glad the film didn’t shy away from showing the brutality of the government’s treatment of Turing and other homosexuals with “chemical castration,” which seemed to kill Turing’s mind as well as his libido. (I did wonder for a second about portraying the estrogen sentence as full-on “cruel” rather than “tragically misguided for the time,” given that the “treatment” is presented as a means of “curing” homosexuality, but perhaps that’s a level of nuance too far.) And in any case, it seems clear to me that if Britain really wanted to apologize for that episode, the queen wouldn’t just pardon Turing but, rather, declare that he and the 49,000 other people convicted under that law never committed a crime in the first place. I mean, do we all have to win the war to be treated with dignity?

Thomas: Before we conclude our calculations, let’s talk about the amazing panel that showed up for a Q&A after the screening we attended. We had the director, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Finn Polmar, Tom Branson, Tywin Lannister, Jim Prideaux, and another actor who was great in the movie but who was destined to be overshadowed by the rest of the talent on the dais.* The director mentioned that they’d shot another ending that showed Turing’s body after his suicide. I’m very glad they chose not to go that route—not only because of the problem of overassociating gays with suicide—but also because it served to put the focus squarely on the system that put Turing in that terrible position in the first place.

Lowder: Oh, absolutely! That sort of ending would have served little more than to add unnecessary pathos. It was enough for me to see the mental and physical decline that the “treatment” had wreaked on Turing, and to understand why continuing to live that way would be impossible for a man like him. I did not need to see a dead body to understand how homophobia killed him. And, as the director pointed out, the bonfire scene they did end on was poignant and the right kind of quiet resolution. It does not leave you feeling happy but, rather, soberly aware of the years of brilliance and joy that homophobia has cost the world (in this case and countless others), how absurd and wasteful it all is. I am not usually very interested in didactic movies, but I think this is one with an important message that may get through to straight people in a way other stories perhaps haven’t—and that is a very good thing.

Thomas: That brings up a question I was pondering as we left the screening: Is The Imitation Game our 12 Years a Slave? Not that the mid-20th-century persecution of gays is directly comparable with the horrors of slavery, but both are films that, because they are set at a safe historical remove, allow us to look back and feel good that those particular kinds of blatant discrimination are behind us—even though more subtle inequities survive today.

Lowder: That is a fascinating question! I’m a queen, as you well know, so it’s hard for me to say what this movie will be like for straight viewers, but I did not leave it feeling satisfied about our advanced position. To the contrary, I was reminded how recent and ultimately precarious—and very Western—our progress really is, and I thought of all the men and women and genderqueer folks around the world who still find themselves playing the imitation game in order to survive. I think there’s a difference here because the film doesn’t revel in gross homophobic language or scenes of hate crimes; instead, it shows how homophobia can be frighteningly cool and bureaucratized. The detectives who ultimately arrest Turing and the judge who sentences him are not portrayed as frothing rednecks, but as men simply applying the law. That “banality of evil” sort of thing hasn’t changed much since 1952.

Thomas: That powerful observation feels like a great place to end. There’s so much we didn’t get to—the masterful acting, especially by Alex Lawther and Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, boy and man; Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score; and the way the film makes one wonder if everything in life is being manipulated by an all-powerful spymaster—but I have a feeling we’ll be talking about this film for a while longer. At least until Feb. 22, 2015.

*Correction, Nov. 28, 2014: This post originally listed Tyrion Lannister among the fictional characters represented by the actors attending a post-screening Q&A, but Charles Dance plays Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones.