Behind every Oscar-bait film lies a glib and self-aware conceit.
The Imitation Game is a great film marred by its own dishonesty about the historical record. It is a dramatized account of the Enigma code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, led by the cryptographer and ur-computer scientist Alan Turing. It is a study of Turing’s psychology, of his slow development from arrogant and socially inept misfit to equally inept part of the team, and, to a smaller extent, of his homosexuality and the effect it has had on his life and relationships.
Or at least it purports to be.
A little dramatization is acceptable, even necessary, in biographical film. But the line should be drawn between dramatization to fit the narrative into the constraints of the medium, and dramatization that somewhat gratuitously shoehorns thematic elements foreign to the source material into the film, especially if the film itself is marketed as being an honest adaptation of the historical record. The Imitation Game appears to commit the latter indiscretion by portraying Turing as a maladaptive social misfit with no understanding of humor, when by all accounts he was perfectly sociable and good humored. The film does this in an attempt to take advantage of two things, I think: the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the delicious irony in having a cryptographer who can break any code, except that which governs the human heart.
It almost seems like the role of Turing was written with Cumberbatch in mind. The Alan Turing of the film is kind of like a gay Sherlock Holmes whose antisocial traits are dialled up to eleven, at least at first. Make no mistake, Cumberbatch gives a wonderful performance as film-Turing, one bursting with sensitivity and pathos, but it happens to be a niche that he’s proven himself to be very good at, by virtue of his popularity as the world’s most famous detective. But of course, one would expect that in a biopic the actor becomes the person he’s playing, and not the other way round.
But perhaps one can understand the decision in light of the fact that the choice to warp Turing’s character that way allows the film to generate a compelling character arc for Turing – one in which he starts to forge an emotional bond with his team of fellow cryptographers, particularly Joan Clarke, the female “romantic” interest (played by Keira Knightley) that the film tries to set up. The film, of course, sets up a parallel narrative journey – one in which Turing and his team crack the indomitable Enigma code amidst the difficulties imposed upon them by an uncooperative military administration, and the other in which Turing learns to navigate an altogether more profound mystery to which his talents are poorly placed to handle – human relationships. The film draws upon the popular folk psychology of people on autism spectrum disorder to hammer this point home, and it necessitates that Turing’s character be rewritten in this way.
The film takes other liberties with history. For example, it depicts the operation at Bletchley park as a small, six-person operation, when it was actually composed of thousands of people. The scene in which Turing and gang must make the painful decision not to act upon their intelligence to save a cargo ship about to be attacked by German U-Boats would not have taken place at their level, but would have been a top-level executive decision. These and other liberties are plentiful in number, but none is as uncomfortably gratuitous as declaring creative license to go to town with the image of a historical figure for the sake of an aesthetic ideal, especially one whose homosexuality made him the victim of a monstrous crime by the state. This is one figure whose historical legacy still casts shadows over the battle for LGBT civil rights today, and to caricature him as socially maladjusted is to invite its invidious conflation with his status as a gay man.
Historical accuracy is not a be-all and end-all requirement in fiction. But I do think that the application of the creative brush should respect sensitive points of legacy. If my MA degree has taught me anything, it is that historical memory should not be underestimated as a source of contemporary contention, and this is especially relevant, not just for political battles over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, but also to the people who look up to Turing as a hero and an inspiring figure. It would not do for them to see his legacy somewhat warped by one (otherwise excellent) film’s attempt at changing it to suit its own self-serving aesthetic ends.
I give this film: 3 out of 5 Universal Turing Machines