Alan Turing is a prime example of the kind of historical figure people cite as proof that one's sexuality has no bearing on one's accomplishments. Turing essentially invented the computer and formalized much that comes with it, including the algorithm and the concept of artificial intelligence. According to Winston Churchill, Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allies' victory in World War II. How could it possibly matter that he was also gay?
The greatest strength of Morten Tyldum's biopic on Turing, The Imitation Game, is that it doesn't flinch when it comes to considering how Turing's sexuality informed other parts of his life. Turing's boyhood crush, Christopher Morcom, for example, introduced Turing to the concept of decryption. They wrote notes to each other in code. The Imitation Game deliberately traces the through line to Turing's military work during WWII, which involved the invention of a machine that broke Nazi codes and provided crucial intelligence to the British army.
In Alan Turing: The Enigma, the exhaustive 1983 biography on which The Imitation Game is based, Andrew Hodges writes:
He did not divide his mind into rigidly separate compartments, once saying that he derived a sexual pleasure from mathematics.
A book can go to figurative places that a movie cannot; the way The Imitation Game makes literal Turing's attractions is by having him emotionally connect with the decoding machine he builds. He names it after his boyhood love who died of TB when they were still in school. A climactic scene features Benedict Cumberbatch (as Turing) tearfully explaining he chose chemical castration over two year jail time as his punishment for being charged "gross indecency" for homosexual contact. In his howling frenzy, he refers to the computer as "my Christopher." You can almost hear the polite brief applause before the next nominee is called.
The Imitation Game is sappy, unadulterated Oscar bait, an opportunity for Benedict Cumberbatch (as Turing) to stutter and tic and avoid eye contact and howl with virtuosity and get the gold he failed to nab last year when he played Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. The movie is enjoyable despite (and depending on your sense of humor, because of) the occasional histrionics, though. It's far less stuffy than you might expect from a WWII-era biopic. Tyldum has his cast banter at Sorkin speed, and Graham Moore's screenplay is consistently witty.
The movie's title has a double meaning: The Imitation Game was the name of a test Turing devised to whether machines could think like humans. At the same time, as a man who had to obscure his sexuality for his own well-being and job security, "he was living an imitation game, not in the sense of conscious play-acting, but by being accepted as a person that he was not," writes Hodges. Hodges continues on the intertwining of Turing's private and professional lives:
He had to find himself as a homosexual in a society doing its best to crush homosexuality out of existence; and less acute, though equally persistent as a problem in his life, he had to fit into an academic system that did not suit his particular line of thought. In both cases, his autonomous self-hood had to be compromised an infringed. These were not problems that could be solved by reason alone, for they arose by virtue of his physical embodiment in the social world. Indeed, there were no solutions, only muddles and accidents.
Already, the film has received criticism for not going deep enough, specifically for not showing any depictions of gay sex. Cumberbatch rebutted to The Wrap, "He talks about entreating a young man to touch his penis. I mean, it's pretty explicit. If you need to see that to understand that he's gay, then all is lost for any kind of subtle storytelling." That's fair, although the storytelling here, with all of its emotional welling, is about a subtle as a jackhammer.
Less forgivable is the film's convention of pairing Turing with platonic love interest Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Clarke worked alongside Turing for the military and in the film, Turing proposes to her for the sake of mutual convenience (he gets to appear heterosexual, she gets her parents off her back and is able to keep working on their project). Hodges told the Sunday Times that "they have built up the relationship with Joan much more than it actually was." When Turing finally reveals to Clarke that he's gay, she's not taken aback.
"We're not like other people. We have each other in our own way," she says, aspiring for queerness within a typical movie framework in which a guy woos a girl (albeit to come work for him), they share witty banter, he proposes, and then they split even though they always love each other. For a movie about a gay man, this structure is awfully hetero-conventional.
Almost no time is spent even talking about Arnold Murray, even though Turing's 19-year-old lover would ultimately lead to his undoing—Murray robbed Turing a few times, the last of which led the police to inquire about the nature of their relationship. (A year after Turing's chemical castration, he killed himself.) "This policemanlike question elicited from Alan a memorable phrase, detailing in semi-official language three of the activities that had taken place," writes Hodges. Turing followed up the phrase that's apparently too memorable for print with a five-page statement on their affair. Like The Imitation Game, Hodges shares none of those details.
The finer points of Turing's life and sexuality, of course, couldn't be jammed into a movie with a running time that's under two hours. With the topic of gay male sexuality, though, we must always be sensitive to what is being left out, what is going untold. If elements of gay sexuality are ignored, is it in the name of communication (that is, by not distracting more ignorant members of the audience) or suppression (that is by avoiding offending homophobes)? Both are cop outs, anyway, just with different degrees of insidiousness. Both serve to make gay more palatable without addressing the bigotry that casts male intimacy as offensive in the first place.
The Imitation Game thinks it can get away with skirting the more salacious details of Turing's life because it follows a gay man during a time when the revelation of such details could lead to his arrest. Though Cumberbatch's Turing is, in some scenes, more matter of fact about his sexuality than you might expect given the social climate, The Imitation Game undersells him there, too. Hodges again:
For most gay men, the question of who knew would be of colossal significance, and life would be rigidly divided into two compartments, one for those who knew, and one for those who did not. Blackmail depended as much upon this fact as upon the legal penalties. The question was important to Alan too, but in a rather different way: it was because he did not wish to be accepted or respected as the person he was not. He was likely to drop a remark about an attractive young man, or something of the kind, on a third or fourth meeting with a generally friendly colleague. To be close to him, it was essential to accept him as a homosexual; it was one of the stringent conditions he imposed.
This weekend, I had a conversation with two friends who hated this movie for its deliberate awards-show pandering, for its repeated crazy-eyed emotionalizing. I knew exactly what they meant, but I explained that when I look at Oscar bait as a genre, I understand what comes with the territory and forgive it, much like I can forgive horror for its shallow characterization and wooden dialogue. And when it comes to PG-13, mainstream Oscar bait like The Imitation Game, you're going to have to accept at least some broadness in all but extraordinary cases. Alan Turing was a great, complex man; The Imitation Game is merely an enjoyable movie. The former changed the world, the latter doesn't even try.