Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A belated review of The Imitation Game

I was genuinely looking forward to this film. As a fan of Sherlock, I like Benedict Cumberbatch. The story of Bletchley codebreaking is fascinating, as is the pioneering work on early computers. Alan Turing himself actually merits being described as a genius, and the issues around his homosexuality and the very different circumstances of the 1940s and 50s is well worth exploring dramatically. Having seen Derek Jacobi play the role of Turing on stage in the early 1990s, I was intrigued to see how this portrayal would come across.

There was lots to commend the film. The template is good - clever but plucky misfit overcomes scepticism further up the chain of command to develop something significant for the war effort - think Barnes Wallis and the bouncing bomb or Watson-Watt with radar. Add the fact that Turing set out all the basics for modern computing plus the complexities of his personal life, and it should have been riveting.

And yet it didn't quite work for me. Other reviews have pointed out the factual problems with the film Contemporary accounts record Turing as more of a team player and more sociable than the film suggests. There was more fruitful code breaking going on than the film suggests, and the cracking of Enigma was done in stages - first the simpler one, and then the more complex naval version. It's unlikely Turing ever knew the Soviet spy in Bletchley. Also, Turing was off his chemical treatment for the final year of his life, and not to the bitter end. There is, apparently, some evidence to suggest he was in quite good spirits in that final year, and some have even suggested his death was accidental (and, of course, the conspiracy theorists remain convinced that it was murder).

Whilst those are valid criticisms, I accept that drama sometimes needs to compress and exaggerate events in order to make a coherent couple of hours in a cinema. However, the Imitation Game felt more like a drama-documentary in terms of its script. There had to be some technical content, including a good moment when Turing utters the words "digital computer" (one of the very few people in the 1940s who would have had any idea what that might mean.) But it felt a bit clunky at times.

However, it was the portrayal of Turing himself that troubled me most - not Cumberbatch's acting, but the material he was given and the way his character was framed. The film handles the whole question of his sexuality very oddly to me. In flashbacks we see his close friendship at school, which indicates the way things are going. Those scenes in the school were some of the most moving moments for me. Then we see little more until his spy colleague names his sexuality out of the blue and tries to use that to manipulate him. But underneath, there is a sense that Turing is a kind of tragic hero, doing great things for his country, but doomed to a sad and despairing end. His engagement is obviously ill-fated from the start, despite the apparent willingness of his fiancee to go ahead in full knowledge of his sexuality. Finally he is found out, and we see a relatively tame depiction of how gay men were apprehended for indecency under the laws that then applied to homosexual relationships. I suspect they were often treated with greater brutality and disgust, according to the attitudes of the era.

The theme (stated explicitly) of the whole movie is that a) Turing is weird and b) weird people sometimes do extraordinary things. At one level that summary has a good degree of validity. However, the drive of the narrative leaves the viewer with the sense that his sexuality is central to any weirdness he may have shown, and that gay people are destined to a tragic, albeit sometimes heroic, end. I felt the film was telling me that his sexuality was a rather inconvenient problem, but we can overlook that as he was jolly clever in the war. That may well have been what the security forces thought at the time, but a modern film ought to be able to critique that without inserting lots of clunky and anachronistic lines and phrases.

It was an interesting evening out, but I don't think the film is a classic.

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