We should all know how this works by now: Award-season Hollywood pushes a political agenda at the same time it angles for Oscars. The Imitation Game only pretends to be a biography of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who worked with a group of code breakers to interpret the Nazis’ Enigma machine and helped the Allies win World War II. The film is equally concerned with contextualizing Turing’s life as a gay man in repressive England, who was hounded by its mid-century anti-homosexual laws and who, after a humiliating post-war arrest for “public indecency,” eventually killed himself.
Through its elaborate, prestige-upholstered style — going back and forth between Turing’s war years, his public-school boyhood, and his post-war persecution – The Imitation Game turns into a tsk-tsk jubilee. Director Morten Tyldum and the film’s distributor Harvey Weinstein play to the 21st-century audience’s certainty that it would have recognized Turing’s genius as well as respected his sexuality.
So shouldn’t The Imitation Game have shown a bit more of Turing’s sexuality, which it claims to defend? Instead, his desires are kept at the untroubling stage of childhood innocence and — as far as is shown — adult eunuchhood. The schoolboy scenes, where adolescent Turing develops a crush on a schoolmate named Christopher, plants our knowledge of the nickname for the code-cracking computer he invents (Christopher gifted Turing with the book A Guide to Codes and Ciphers), but the idyllic nature of that first longing and first loss is patronizing.
Years after the gay romantic Oxbridge drama Another Country (1984) and Merchant Ivory’s deeply felt film of E. M. Forster’s Maurice (1987), it’s peculiar that The Imitation Game depicts Turing’s life so coyly. But Tyldum’s coyness is part of the awards-season, agenda-pushing soft-sell strategy. The Imitation Game is not geared toward making sense of Turing’s reticence, self-doubt, or awkwardnesses; these are just tics for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch to play with. The film means to sentimentalize Turing, a cheap form of martyrdom that mostly goes to the advantage of imprecise, weakly declared political interests. This year Hollywood can flatter itself for disdaining homophobia just as it congratulated itself for disdaining slavery thanks to last year’s horror show 12 Years a Slave.
That Turing’s gayness is a hidden aspect of his on-screen adult life points to the filmmakers’ dishonesty and hypocrisy — as if they were whitewashing Turing, or making a hollow statue. It goes along with the script’s simplifying computer science to fast-spoken jargon. (Turing’s breakthrough deciphering is so obvious it’s almost as insulting as the F/X mathematics that literally surrounded Russell Crowe in the asinine A Beautiful Mind.) Turing’s partnership with a female wiz Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) is a further distraction, including how she explains away his inwardness as mere arrogance and pretends to share disinterested asexuality.
By also explaining away Turing’s antisocial habits, the film virtually disregards the true nature of homophobia. When Turing’s fellow code breakers object to his pompous, fastidious manner, he recalls childhood adversity: “They beat me up because I’m smarter than they are,” but Christopher corrects him: “No, they beat you up because you’re different.” (Harvey Weinstein still promoting his doc Bully.) But this conflicts with Joan Clarke’s advice “If they don’t like you, they won’t help you.” (Harvey Weinstein still defending industry bullying.) Scenes of Turing’s attempts at ingratiating himself are desultory and unrevealing. His superior at MI5, Menzies (Mark Strong), makes the insinuation “You’re exactly the kind of man I hoped you would be” but then never makes a move. Perhaps because the entire film is a transparent attempt at ingratiation, it’s essentially just plain condescending.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch has the misfortune of an imperious height, babyish bright eyes, and a large forehead, features that place him in the outsider mode — as in last year’s The Fifth Estate, where he played Wikileaks renegade Julian Assange. He plays Turing externally. Both Tyldum and the script deny him the opportunity to enact even furtive passion. The film’s image of gayness is the occasional swishy mannerism or tongue-tied nervousness that seems borrowed (and quickly snatched back) from Anthony Perkins. Part of the greatness of Peter O’Toole’s performance as T. E. Lawrence was the subtle effeminacy that complemented the unquestionably masculine tenaciousness. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was a landmark of sexual discretion, among its other great achievements, unafraid to depict Lawrence‘s sexual nature — without obviousness and yet with enlightening political relevance.
If Hollywood cannot match that achievement today (Tyldum doesn’t come close even in a pub scene where Turing, Clarke, and other government workers flirt heterosexually), it has not progressed as much as it likes to think.
The insincere political stances in The Imitation Game extend to its blasé anti-war sentiments (“Every day we performed our blood-soaked calculus” by necessarily withholding information that might have saved lives) and its predictable, inevitable secular skepticism (“God didn’t win the war, we did”). This film’s Turing never expresses love or desire, but he pontificates that “the war was not about freedom versus tyranny or democracy versus fascism . . . but about a group of crossword puzzlers.” That definitive egghead’s boast also distances The Imitation Game from attempting the complex interplay of sexual and political life that distinguished Robert DeNiro’s daring CIA history, the little-discussed The Good Shepherd, which successfully mixed private lives, espionage and political history.
The Imitation Game’s mainstream messaging gets in the way of what should have been a frank, moving, and personalized story of a man’s desire, intelligence, and repression — perhaps as an artist like Terence Davies might have filmed it. Unfortunately, self-congratulation is also part of the film’s message.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.