Last night “The Imitation Game” won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Here I will evaluate it on the merits and consider it from a queer perspective. If you haven’t seen it, be aware, many spoilers lie ahead.
I saw “The Imitation Game” in one of the new recliner seat theaters. I could sit in one of those recliners and stare at a blank screen with no complaints, and I could sit in a straight back chair and watch Benedict Cumberbatch read the Sunday paper for two hours also with no complaints. So the experience was bound to be a good one. But if I force myself out of my happy haze to look at the film critically, I’d say the movie rates a B-.
The cinematography and was excellent, especially the smooth integration of footage from WWII. The score was moving but unobtrusive. Cumberbatch and his child counterpart, played by Alex Lawther, were extremely good and well matched. That said, the film suffered considerable flaws.
It was as if so much had gone into writing a great part for Cumberbatch, that filmmakers just filled in the other parts with stock characters: “The Admiral who doesn’t believe in Turing’s vision and wants to shut the program down,” “The suave MI6 agent who is playing all sides,” “the ingenue with a gift for puzzles,” “the nosey detective,” “the heartless British school master.” Dialog from supporting characters was often strained and seemed to exist mostly to give Turing things to respond to that showed his literalism and incomprehension of human repartee.
At one point Turing asks a fellow code breaker if he should tell his fiancee (played by a very earnest Kiera Knightly) that he has had affairs with men (the response “no, it’s a crime.”). That moment seems at once the most honest in the film, and yet the most capable of undermining the whole story as it is presented. The term “affairs” suggests drama, or at the very least a range of emotions far beyond Turing’s capacity as it has been presented. There is a jarring disconnect here. Are we really to believe Turing was capable of having more nuanced interactions –even if primarily sexual ones– in the world of closeted gay British men circa 1939?
We never find out. We never see how Turing identifies other gay men, where he goes to seek them out, how he flirts with them and has whatever back ally fumbles as he may have done. He never makes a pass at any man (or woman), and, in fact, we never see him act in a sexual way at all.
Many have praised the film for “exploring” Turing’s sexual identity, but it doesn’t really do that. Historical “accuracy” aside, the film mainly uses Turing’s sexuality as a kind of auto-generator for manufactured gravitas. The story is the familiar tale of an awkward genius who overcomes various obstacles –human and mechanical– to save the day, and though Turing’s sexual orientation could have been left as a mere footnote, instead it gets tossed in as a handy extra obstacle to be overcome. Not sure where to put it, director Morten Tyldum drops the gay subplot out for most of the middle of the film.
Cumberbatch is then left to determine how to deliver a credible performance under the circumstances. Either he has to play it as directed –that Turing is fundamentally dispassionate, and his desire to create the machine is a matter purely of intellectual ambition– or he has to take a different tack. As with Dr. Frankenstein building his machine-monster for company, Cumberbatch anchors his portrayal of Turing in suppressed longing and loneliness. Unlike the screenwriter and the director, he refuses to part with the importance of Turing’s sexuality.
This puts him at cross purposes with Tyldum. A different movie would show how interacting with other people –in the two years it took to build the machine– ultimately brought Turing out of his internal exile. But under Tyldum’s direction, Turing remains fundamentally dissociated. When he is hit in the face by a colleague he simply nurses his lip and makes no emotional response (Cumberbatch uses his eyes to convey something like surprise and disappointment). During the same scene Turing orders that the group not interfere with a German bombing run that will certainly sink the ship carrying one young colleague’s brother. As the colleague cries, Turing looks satisfied that he has done the right thing. Later, when we catch up with him after the war he, is limping around from the effects of chemical castration, but despite the evidence that sex continued to drive his behavior, he appears to be building a new machine in his apartment.
Based on the script alone, it would be very hard to understand what the character of Joan sees in Turing, or to connect with him ourselves, but Cumberbatch goes out of his way to deliver. As he gives the “affairs with men” line, he indicates –in a way the screenplay doesn’t– that the forced subordination of his physical desires is at the core of Turing’s personality. As with his performance as Sherlock Holmes in the British TV series, Cumberbatch manages to convey enough humanity through his body, that it overcomes the missing poignancy in the script. The humiliation and sadness live on his face, in his painful stuttering speech, the stooped shoulders and puzzled tilt of the head.
I had the impression, that, like me, Cumberbatch might have been more engaged by an inverted plot, a film about an ace codebreaker trying to find his way as a gay man in wartime London, forced to keep his important work a secret from his lovers. Tyldum, however, was more interested in the will-they-make-it-in-time tension of the besting of the Germans’ methodical precision –as embodied by their Enigma machine– by a man with an unusual mind (and an equally deviant, but relatively unimportant, sexual predilections). The filmmakers and their financial backers probably thought this angle would be more appealing to mainstream, American movie-goers, and the fact that the film made $81 million at the box office, suggests they were right.
Because it is rated PG-13, “The Imitation Game” is likely to find a home on international airline flights, but despite Cumberbatch’s fine work, the lovely cinematography, and compelling score, I doubt it will become a cinematic touchstone. And as a movie with a gay theme, it strains. It can’t pass the topic off as incidental –after all, Turing did take his own life as a result of being exposed– but it can’t seem to figure out how to incorporate it effectively, despite the star’s best efforts.