The Imitation Game is disheartening. It is a movie to be angry about and disappointed in, but also one which should never have been expected to be any better.
The movie is a biography of
the sexy, new interpretation of Sherlock Holmes Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), hailed as the father of computer science. Turing, with the assistance and backing of the British military and mathematician Gordon Welchman with no help or encouragement, develops the world’s first computer to break Germany’s communication cipher at the height of World War II. Afterward, much higher levels of government Turing all on his own decides how many pieces of information to act on — the Coventry conundrum Turing Sherlock talked about in that one episode — because Turing is smart and special and talented and everyone else is just dumb. Later, Turing is persecuted for being gay, because you win Oscars for playing Gay People that Die.
This movie is an insult. Not just to Turing, not just to the British military, but to everyone who sees it. Every aspect of the story is dramatized into terms beyond black and white, beyond any need or even opportunity for the audience to participate in the film.
was respected among his peers and worked well with them has Generic Communication Disorder, a friendly Hollywood blend of Asperger’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with all the adorable idiosyncrasies and none of the suffering, designed to endear the afflicted to the audience because oh just look how special he is. Because of his GCD, Turing is thrust into a lifetime of persecution for being different because bullied people are sympathetic. His co-workers were instrumental to their shared cause are depicted as either arrogant jerks won over by our plucky hero or not even mentioned.
Filmmakers wanted Turing to have conflict with other characters, but none with the audience, so they turned him into Jesus Christ. Everyone argues with him, but the audience knows he’s right because he’s the Main Character. He is made to suffer for being right, because on some level what American audiences want more than anything is to have their persecution complex satisfied.
All of this operates on the assumption they wouldn’t sympathize with the real person.
The worst individual offender has to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), Turing’s one-time fiance. Plucked from her parent’s home by
Welchman Turing for her propensity for crossword puzzles, this character, who is the only person who has demonstrated any capability of helping Turing, spends all wartime as a prop to create sexual tension. Though she and Turing were once engaged, both Turing’s surviving family and Andrew Hodges, who wrote the biography on which the movie is based, criticized the movie for building their relationship into more than it was.
This is yet another naked play at mass audience sensibilities. Even in a movie about a Gay Person that Dies, an anti-LGBT concept in and of itself, the tension still has to be heterosexual. In reality, there was no tension with anyone — Turing remarked that Bletchley Park was a “sexual desert” for him.
Going off the advertisements, that’s what this movie mostly is — appeals to mass sensibilities, the least common denominator. The characters are rigid stereotypes — jock playboy Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), military-minded hardass Commander Alistair Denniston (Charles Dance), even Turing himself is warped into something strongly resembling Sherlock, because filmmakers simply couldn’t ask this wonderfully famous and talented actor to play a different character than the one he’s already made a name for himself with. The sexuality plotline is muted in all of the promotional material because that would have been dangerous. The Oscar-moment is a blubbery “I don’t want to be alone!” so standard it’s gag-worthy. This movie, despite its limited release and arthouse trappings, is a purely commercial exercise. If it feels like you’ve seen it before, it’s because it was designed to make you feel that way.
Biopics don’t have to be exact re-tellings of a person’s life. The best aren’t. The guideline, as unhelpful as it is, is to capture the essence of a story. The Imitation Game doesn’t do that. The essence of Turing’s story is that even as recently as 1954, even in a country as advanced as the U.K., even a war hero may be put to the stake for his sexuality. The essence of the movie is that Turing was special and unique and different and no one understood him and O horror, O me, O cruel, cursed fate, he died, alone and misunderstood, by all but the kind, forward-thinking audience, who will surely cry fat, beautiful tears and cheer, cheer the lead actor come February.
What happened to Turing — public humiliation and chemical castration leading to his death, a suspicious suicide which was never thoroughly investigated — is truly horrifying. It’s a story that needs to be told. It’s not a story that needs to be simplified to the point that it becomes another story entirely.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Pull not our heartstrings thus, they crack, they break! I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.