There was a title shown at the end of The Imitation Game (2014) that made me mad. “Between 1885 and 1967,” it read, “approximately 49,000 homosexual men were convicted of gross indecency under British law.” We had, briefly, been told earlier in the movie that such convictions were followed by a grim choice between prison time and government-mandated hormonal treatments. This upsetting statistic of injustice and cruelty would have been enough to anger me by myself, but it bothered me even more that it came at the end of a movie that didn’t earn the indignant ire that figure conjures up. In fact, I couldn’t help but feeling that the movie was using that ill-begotten indignant ire to prop up its unfocused story and add heft to a confused endeavor. I don’t like that feeling.
The movie is about the time that Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but difficult mathematician, and his team of cryptographers deciphered the unbreakable Nazi code and won the war for Britain. That the movie desperately wants to be about persecution and paranoia and trust and homosexuality does not change the fact that it is about a specific bit of code breaking that took place under the auspices of the Royal Military and the Secret Service from the beginning of the war to V-E Day. That’s not to say that a movie can’t be about Alan Turing and persecution and paranoia and trust and homosexuality. It’s just to say that this one isn’t and no amount of wishing from Morten Tyldum, the director, and Graham Moore, the screenwriter, can change that because they didn’t do the work to make it that way.
The cynic in me can see the entire gestation of this project. We start with a book (Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma), disregard it and history and write a straightforward script about an incredible moment in history that also centers around a single brilliant but misunderstood genius. We find the perfect actor to drive the project forward and garner plenty of awards attention. Suddenly, however, we get very nervous that a story about the ’40s isn’t going to move the needle in our demo and we need to add some additional elements to make the whole thing seem important, because winning the most substantial war in history isn’t important enough. Our single brilliant but misunderstood genius was also gay, which is great for us, because gay is huge now, but not great because that fact fits awkwardly within the context of our main story the way we’ve constructed it and is at odds with the female romantic element we want to retain (we got Kiera Knightley!). Still, we need to make that a thing in the movie—it has to be there to add some Dallas Buyers Club sizzle. Instead of reframing the whole thing in a different context, we’ll just pepper in his homosexuality when it’s most dramatic as if it were a recurring disease or addiction or something.
The real frustration is that a good movie could be made out of any of the several suggested by The Imitation Game. We have the code-breaking stuff which is a terrific yarn (though poorly told here); the sad decline of Alan Turing as he is prosecuted and, as the film suggests, driven to suicide by the government hormones that agitate his nervous system; his relationship with Joan Clarke (Knightley), his mathematical equal, with whom he is able to create a sexless romance built on intellectual attraction; and even the layers upon layers of secrets that Turing’s work engenders. But none of them are put to good use; they’re all underdeveloped and distractingly compete for the soul of the movie, which they end up ripping to shreds. Because of this, even the code-breaking story, which is given the lion’s share of the plot, never settles in. We are led to believe that Turing is arrogant and impossible, but partly because of the script and partly because of Benedict Cumberbatch, he comes off simply as charmingly awkward. When his co-workers and superiors express their frustration and hatred toward him, it feels unnatural and unmotivated. There’s no doubt that Turing is aloof, imperious and stubborn, but the movie always gives us a reason to see behind his callousness. We are never in any doubt that he’s right. Therefore, the behavior of the others feels like obstinate plot-driven speed bumps, placed there to pad the running time and to give our hero more to overcome, except we never see Turing change to better work with those around him; we merely wait for the others to recognize Turing for the charming, awkward genius we in the audience pegged him as from the start. That isn’t a character arc, that’s the movie lowering the bar for itself.
Many of the movie’s problems originate from the script by Moore, (which has been, naturally, nominated for everything under the sun), a script so basic it would turn a pH strip more purple than Prince’s bedroom. Anytime we need a ham-fisted explanation for Turing’s behavior, we have a handy flashback to Turing’s school days. Anytime we need Turing to explain to us how he’s feeling, we have a flash-forward to Turing’s confessional under police questioning. The movie never shows us anything about math or code breaking but gives us a lot of scenes in which Turing makes furious notes and adjusts complicated material that explains nothing but how a child imagines a genius working. “I guess the only words you need to know in German to bring down the Nazis are ‘Heil Hitler’,” says one character smugly. “The entire Third Reich was brought down by a crossword puzzle,” says another, but because we are kept away from the full meaning of those statements, they mean nothing. Lines are repeated by different characters across multiple timelines, not for any dramatic reason, but because they make nice little rhymes within the story. A character finishes a joke about a sandwich from a scene that occurred about twenty movie minutes earlier but occurred on the actual timeline years ago. I know these are mathematical geniuses but are we expected to believe that one would remember an off-handed comment about a sandwich for two years? And that the other characters would know what he’s referring to? Especially when one of the characters wasn’t even there for the original incident?
The overstuffed and undercooked nature of the script culminates with a tacked-on coda about Turing’s homosexuality that, frankly, doesn’t do justice to the suffering the real man must have been burdened with. The movie isn’t about who Turing was; it’s about what he did during the war, so the awkward fumblings at personal insight, from the dime-store psychology of his early years to the mental anguish of his last days, only comes across in Cumberbatch’s earnest portrayal (and Alex Lawther’s as the young Turing), but the script undercuts him by staying on the surface. It does a disservice to Turing and the audience to have the movie treat his sexuality like a condition, a plot point to muck things up. Except for at its inception, we are never given a glimpse into what romance might be for Alan Turing, so it’s too late to make it his undoing in the last ten minutes. The movie has a right to bring up these things (and probably would feel like whitewash if it didn’t) but it still picks and chooses what it wants to say about Turing (the mathematician’s alleged Aspergers syndrome is never dealt with, nor is the conspiratorial suggestion that he didn’t commit suicide but was murdered by the secret service, there’s also a theory that his death wasn’t suicide at all but an accident [Turing was taken off the hormones 14 months before his death, a detail the film misplaces]). Of course, the movie has the right to pick and choose. It has the right to make up, disregard or allege anything that it wants. It’s making art, not history. It just makes muddled, uncompelling art here. What it really wants to say is that this genius wasn’t appreciated in his own time but the sanctimony with which it appropriates his suffering is another way of robbing Turing of his due. Look to a different English movie, 1961’s Victim, one of the first mainstream movies to have the legal persecution of gays as its subject and a watershed of political moviemaking, if you want some insight into the secret lives of pain, anguish and fear these men and women lived with in mid-century England (and sadly, still must around the world). A movie like Victim is part of the reason why the statistic shown at the end of the movie has an end date. Of course, not every movie needs to be that important, but it would be nice for one that wants to be so badly to get a little closer to its goal.