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“A Pale Imitation: the new Turing biopic is a far cry from the fascinating truth”

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The Imitation Game (2014), Black Bear Pictures, Bristol Automotive, dir. Morten Tyldum

The fortunes of the dead change easily. Before his death, Alan Turing (1912-1954) was already being forgotten, to the extent that the theoretical computer he posited was sometimes referred to as a Türing Machine, his surname garbled among the many German names of the discipline. Now, Turing is a household name. His most famous achievement is certainly his efforts to break the German Enigma cipher at Bletchley Park, but he is also well-known for his work in mathematics, computer science, logic and biology. As an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal, something which lead to him ultimately being put on trial, Turing has also attracted attention as a representative for LGBT history. In recent years, Turing has been in the news over and over again. In 2009, Gordon Brown issued an apology to Turing for the prosecution he suffered. The centenary of Turing’s birth was celebrated in 2009 with documentaries, articles and exhibitions, as well as with a blue plaque on King’s College Cambridge, where he spent most of his academic life. After several petitions and a failed bill in the House of Commons, Turing received a Royal pardon at Christmas 2013. With all this attention, it was only a matter of time before Turing became the subject of a biopic. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, was launched in theatres in the middle of November.

The Imitation Game starts by threatening to break the fourth wall, as a voice-over instructs the audience to listen without interrupting or judging. It is a strong beginning, and there are positive things to say about the film. Visually, it is beautiful. A lot of work has gone into the clutter of Turing’s home and work-place, and Cumberbatch is wonderfully dishevelled. When well-dressed, he sports a differently checked shirt and tie, taken right out of a studio photograph of Turing. When not, he manages an impressive scruffiness, seldom seen in period dramas. With scenes ranging from the manor-house-turned-codebreaking headquarters Bletchley Park during a blackout, to King’s Cross crowded by children being evacuated, The Imitation Game revels in skilfully shot period scenes. It is war-time British visual staple-food done well.

However, none of what is to come after those opening moments is as elegant. The Imitation Game suffers from an incurable affliction – a bad script. After the imaginative opening, the film lapses into clichés. More often than not, the dialogue is painfully predictable. When the initially reluctant co-workers suddenly stand up and one by one announce “if you’re going to sack Alan, you have to sack me too”, it is obviously meant to be a touching scene, but my thoughts went at once to the fact that this very line is spoofed in Muppet Treasure Island (1996). When a line is so well-established that a Muppets film can make fun of it, it cannot be used seriously without seeming ridiculous. The script has its moments, particularly in the scenes of Turing at school (beautifully acted by Alex Lawther) and the interaction between Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Turing, but it is only when attempting to be humorous that it manages to employ clichéd scenarios well.

However, the uninspired, clichéd dialogue pales in light of The Imitation Game’s biggest problem. The film is riddled with historical and biographical inaccuracies, both big and small. Some are merely annoying (Turing was never a professor), or sloppy (Turing was taken to trial in 1952, not 1951), and would have been easily amended. Others range from the absurd to the offensive, which is made worse by the fact that the film’s credits proclaims it to be “based” on Andrew Hodges’ excellent biography Alan Turing: the enigma (1983, latest edition 2012, Vintage). The events of the film have only the most passing resemblance to the real events described by Hodges.

The historical progression of the Second World War is completely ignored. Britain’s changing fortunes during the war, which were keenly felt at the home front, are unnoticeable. Bletchley Park remains a team of six people doing breaking, decryption, translation, interpretation, emendation and distribution of intelligence throughout the war. In reality, Bletchley Park grew from ninety employees in 1939 to almost nine thousand in 1945, and from the very beginning, internal security was very strict. To anyone who knows the slightest thing about the Enigma cipher, the codebreakers in The Imitation Game seem very slow. The ‘great breakthroughs’ are in fact basic statements about the machine, such as that it never encrypts a letter as itself, and come late in the war. The Bombe, the electromechanical machine which made it possible to break Enigma on an industrial scale, is presented as an early computer, and the computers which Turing built later in life (in the film taken from their context at Manchester University and placed instead in Turing’s living room) are presented as direct descendants of it, which was by no means the case.
Several major players in breaking Enigma are never even mentioned. The Polish cryptanalysts who had done important work before the war are only mentioned once, and even important British cryptanalysts, such as Dillwyn Knox (the most senior codebreaker early in the war and, like Turing, a Kingsman) and Gordon Welchman (co-inventor of the Bombe along with Turing) are completely absent. Not only is Turing portrayed as doing everything that was in fact a team effort, he also becomes central in diffusing the intelligence from the decrypts, by keeping the Navy (and presumably the Army and RAF) in the dark along with a lone MI6 man, rather than leaving this to the huge intelligence machinery of Bletchley Park, the Armed Forces and the Secret Services. In the simplified parallel reality this film is set in, two mathematicians and an intelligence officer have a better understanding of military strategy than the Admiralty, who evidently have no understanding of cipher security or intelligence procedures.

The most startling inaccuracy may be the fact that Turing is repeatedly suspected of being a Soviet spy, both in the scenes set in the 1950s and in the Second World War. In the 1950s, the inspector investigating a burglary in Turing’s house is certain that he is ‘hiding something’. As Turing was at Cambridge and his military records are secret, he draws the conclusion that he is probably a Soviet agent. When it turns out that what Turing is hiding is the fact that he is homosexual, the inspector insists that there must be something more. In the storyline during the war, Turing is constantly accused of spying for the Soviet Union, to the point that military police search his desk for anything incriminating. The spy is in fact John Cairncross, allegedly the fifth man of the Cambridge Five, who in reality was at Bletchley Park but in an altogether different section from Turing. At this point, Turing is not exculpated by the film, but instead shown to cover up the identity of the spy. It can only be hoped that these two entirely fictitious scenarios – that Turing was accused of being a spy and that he covered up espionage – will not make their way into the public consciousness. These claims are nothing less than slander.

The espionage storyline uneasily shares the space with the storyline about Turing’s relationship with his coworker Joan Clarke, which is far more interesting, and unlike the spy story largely true. The inclusion of this friendship and brief engagement was one of the major controversies while casting and filming was going on, but it is surprisingly well-handled. It is uncommon to see a relationship between a gay man and a straight woman be treated as emotionally valuable, rather than as just a cover-up. Turing’s homosexuality is certainly not denied or obfuscated. The film’s portrayal of it is not reliant on a relationship, but is instead presented as a fact and an identity. Often the mere existence of queer characters is not seen in fiction – their sexuality must be cemented by actions. The Imitation Game breaks at least this mould. But while we should be able to tell stories about queer characters without having to prove their sexuality to the audience, not including any of Turing’s relationships with men makes me uncomfortable. All we see is his unrequited boyhood love of Christopher Morcom, a school friend who died before going to university. Throughout the film Turing continues to be obsessed with his dead friend. It is undeniable that Turing’s love of Morcom played an important role in his adult life, but he had other loves and other relationships. The film’s fixation on this first crush, in conjunction with the Clarke storyline, makes Turing look repressed and closeted, which could not be further from the truth.

The fact that Clarke’s storyline, like the rest of the film, is full of changes and inaccuracies undermines some of the sensitivity and awareness which is shown in writing her relationship with Turing. Joan Clarke was one of three women who worked on primary cryptanalysis of Enigma, having been recruited to Bletchley Park by her geometry supervisor at Cambridge. Although she was paid a third of what a man of the same background would get, she was a valued member in the Naval unit. By the end of the war she held the position of Deputy Head of Hut 8. The Imitation Game feels the need to twist this story, and instead has Clarke be recruited through a crossword puzzle advert (a means of recruitment which did occur, but not in this case). She rejects the offer of working as a codebreaker as her parents disapprove. In order to ensure that she comes to Bletchley Park, Turing employs her as a secretary, and then smuggles out classified material so they can work on them at night. Her university is never mentioned, denying her the prestige of having been at Cambridge, which is bestowed only on Turing. Clarke’s very presence at Bletchley Park becomes dependant on Turing. She is not there primarily because she has earned it, but because he wants her there. This is taken to an extreme when he attempts to sack her when breaking off the engagement (instead of changing the work rota so they would not have to see each other, as he actually did). Her high position at Bletchley Park at the end of the war and her post-war career as a cryptanalyst at GCHQ is completely ignored.

In social interactions, Clarke becomes the maladjusted Turing’s conscience and capacity for empathy, which feels rather like she is there to provide a ‘woman’s touch’. The scenes where Clarke explains to Turing how to interact with his co-workers descend swiftly into gender essentialism, and leave me with a worried feeling that this relationship is supposed to ‘fix’ him. The changes to Clarke’s background make the sexism of the 1940s much more obvious, but end up simplifying what was a complex system where women’s work was simultaneously essential and devalued. The sledgehammer sexism feels rather like a pat on the back for modern audiences than a meaningful portrayal of the 1940s. Between this and the homophobia, The Imitation Game does not deal well with the subtleties of opinions of the past.

Keira Knightley gives a good performance, but it saddens me that the film industry has yet again succumbed to the need to make the female main character flawlessly good-looking. Clarke has been described as awkward, bespectacled and suffering from a bad stammer. Knightley’s Joan is neat, self-confident and well-groomed – a far cry from the timid maths geek that Clarke’s contemporaries describe her as.

The decision to downplay Clarke’s eccentricity is certainly gendered, but it also serves to single out Turing as strange. He is made out to be the only eccentric at Bletchley Park, something which was hardly the case. Turing is unmistakably written to be autistic. He struggles with social interaction, has no sense of humour, and goes through intricate rituals for everyday things. Most notably, however, he is made out to be rude and insensitive. This must be a case of the writer reading up on the autism spectrum, seeing a mention of ‘lack of demonstrated empathy’ and extrapolating that this means being an unpleasant person. This is wrong both in general and specifically. It has been plausibly theorised that Turing was on the autism spectrum, but he is time and time again described in our sources as kind, funny and likeable (as long as he liked you – otherwise he would not bother). The Imitation Game reduces Turing to a stock character, and does this fascinating historical person a huge disservice. The film’s inability to deal with subtleties ruins any good intention it has.

Most of all, The Imitation Game leaves me wondering why one would make all these changes. Considering that the film claims to be based on Hodges’ biography, we must assume that the filmmakers have read it. This would mean that they are either impossibly inattentive or are making these changes knowingly. Some must be made for dramatic effect, like the antagonism between the codebreakers, Clarke’s recruitment and the spy story. Other changes seem rather to be made for more patronising reasons. Do they honestly think that viewers would not be able to handle the progression of the Second World War, the organisation of Bletchley Park or the interpretation of intelligence? These things are treated like off-putting distractions from the ‘actual’ narrative, and nothing we should have to worry our heads about.

***

It is an unassailable fact of biographical fiction that it is never possible to include everything. Jasper Fforde phrases it excellently in his novel Something Rotten: “If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Over-long, detailed to the point of distraction – and ultimately without a major resolution.” One reason why Turing’s life is so convenient for biographical fiction is that with very little effort, it is possible to find a theme, a red thread, and not one but a number of major resolutions. There is no need to change things around, or to exclude large parts of his life in order to get a good story out of it. Reality outshines fiction at every turn.

The Imitation Game wastes countless wonderful real-life moments that would have translated so well onto the big screen. I would have wanted to see Bletchley Park as the displaced senior common room, where civilians and servicemen work together in an unsteady truce. Turing and Clarke should fashion their own chess-pieces out of clay and fire them in Turing’s landlady’s oven, talk about the Fibonacci numbers of daisies, go for a holiday in Wales and realise when they get there that Turing has forgotten his ration-book. Their engagement should start with Turing coming out and Clarke shrugging, and should end with him quoting Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol in an unknowing moment of foreshadowing. Turing should come to work in his gas-mask because of his hay-fever, and pose his teddy-bear Porgy with a book in front of the fire before supervisions. He should take homophobic coworkers to task and down a pint for a bet.

But the Turing who buried silver ingots in the woods around Bletchley in case of a German invasion, who made gloriously bad puns and who knitted Möbius ribbons in his spare time is not to be found here. He has been sacrificed in favour of tired clichés and patronising simplifications. Turing deserves better than that.

 


Annie Burman is a PhD student in Classical linguistics. In addition to a BA and MPhil in Classics, she holds an MA in modern history, with gender at Bletchley Park as her specialty.