Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 September 2014

The Imitation Game - A Beautiful Mind Lite

Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game is a real crowd-pleaser. It recently won the audience award at the Toronto Film festival, and both shows here at Dartmouth sold out quickly and easily – I know probably a dozen people who tried to get tickets and couldn't. I had to buy mine two weeks in advance in order to make sure I got one. The line was literally out the door. As I say, it's an intense crowd-pleaser, and the audience I was with just loved it; laughing at all the jokes; gasping at all the right moments; pretending to be surprised when something predictable happened; and clucking in a knowing and self-congratulatory way when the final title cards came up to tell us what happened after the events of the movie were over.

Ms. Knightley
But The Imitation Game is cheap, cynical Oscar bait through and through. It has a beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, a charming supporting performance by Keira Knightley, and a tic-filled teary-eyed central performance by everyone's favorite problem-solver Benedict Cumberbatch, but this is a movie that repeats to us a series of things that we already know so that we can feel good about knowing them. And the clichés! The one of these that stands out the most is the phrase It's the one no one imagines can do anything who can do the thing no one imagines or something like that. It is repeated no less than three times throughout the film, so often that I'm surprised the Weinstein Company isn't using the phrase in its marketing.

The film follows famed Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing, and it alternates between three time periods – the early 1940s, the early 1950s (after the war), and the 1920s when Turing is a young man. This is yet another film that intends to explain a character's interesting or seemingly inexplicable behavior through recourse to a past that is unfolded to the audience slowly. In Turing's case, he was in love as a very young man and this boyhood love somehow – well, the film doesn't really say, but it had a profound effect on him, and if The Imitation Game is not really clear about any concrete effects this young man had on Turing, the film makes us think that it has unlocked something deep about Turing and his (allegedly) mysterious life.

The sequences with Turing's fellow code-breakers are fun. And every scene with Keira Knightley is delightful, but the rest of the film is just one more narrative about a single-minded genius whom no one believed but who did his thing anyway, dammit, and turned out to be right, suckas. The film is ostensibly also about the persecution of homosexuality in the 1940s and '50s, but this is more an afterthought for the film than it is anything else. We never see Turing really as a homosexual. That is, he doesn't actually have sex with anyone in the film. He keeps saying he's a homosexual, and he's told that he needs to keep that a secret and all of that, but... legally, one isn't really a homosexual if one never has sex with anyone. I mean, how would anyone go about trying to prove it? The film's version of what a homosexual is is a person who knows a secret thing about himself – not a person who, you know, has sex with other men or even fantasizes about them.

And The Imitation Game goes further: everyone keeps secrets during the war. There are spies for the Soviets and secrets kept from the military and encoded messages from the Nazis. Being gay is just one more secret in a whole series of them – a comparison the film makes explicitly in a scene late in the film. In other words, the film doesn't explore the life of Alan Turing at all. Instead it explores what might have happened if a homosexual worked for MI6 during the Second World War. Everything in this film is approached generically.

Oh, but don't listen to me. I'm just a curmudgeon. The film comes out in late November, and most everyone will probably like it. Expect Oscar nominations for the writer, the composer, and the two main actors. That seems about right. It's a crowd-pleaser. It's about World War II. And it feels very important.


  1. ''... one isn't really a homosexual if one never has sex with anyone.''

    As isn't really heterosexual if one never has sex with anyone?

    One isn't really very smart if one says such idiotic things.

    1. But of COURSE one isn't a heterosexual if one never has sex with anyone. Shouldn't that be obvious? We can leave aside the fact that I don't really believe in heterosexuality as a real thing, but the point is that homosexual activity was policed not homosexuality as such. So if one doesn't have sex with a member of someone of the same gender, one doesn't need to worry.

  2. Interesting. Sounds really fun, not believing in heterosexuality, I'd gladly join you here, but alas, even in prolonged periods of sexual abstinence I'm as obsessively heterosexual as I've always been. And if I were a virgin, I'd be a heterosexual virgin.
    But seriously, did you get the impression that he was presented as such a virgin, only a gay one, who never ever had sex with anyone? Or do you mean he only talked about his having sex and wasn't shown actually having it?

    1. Right. That's exactly it. The film is totally unclear. He keeps saying that he's a homosexual, but the film implies that he's had sex with no one, and that he pines away only for this boy from his childhood. So "homosexuality" is presented as identical to "loving someone of the same gender" rather than "having sex pr wanting to have sex with someone of the same gender".

      As for heterosexuality, it's easy not to believe in it. It wasn't even invented as a concept until the nineteenth century. It's a rather recent idea. It's a rather long conversation that I can't really respond to in full here without being reductive, but historians have been pretty helpful in this regard. In short, sexuality is a way of thinking about how desire works, and it is (currently) the predominant way of thinking about how desire works, but that doesn't make it an ontological fact, it just makes it a popular concept.

      I'm not trying to say that Turing didn't want to have sex with men or to make any judgments about that at all. My point was that the film treats homosexuality as something other than having sex with men: it's treated as some kind of internal ontological fact about Turing's own physiognomy. This misrepresents both Turing's own life and the ways that the laws at the time worked (which didn't prosecute "homosexuality" but "indecency", that is, sexual activity.)

  3. Er, it's clear he's had sex with men in the movie from the interrogation scenes (and homosexuality is actually romantic and/or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender, not just sexual).

    Turing did pine away for Christopher. That was the most important relationship in his life, and he actually became an atheist when Christopher died because it shattered his faith in God.

    He abstained from sex while he was at BP, calling himself 'asexual' in his writings.

    Beyond that, we know nearly nothing of his sex life as an adult other than no significant relationships, just the rare young prostitute. Their options here were randomly inserting a sex scene with a barely-legal prostitute or fabricating a relationship entirely (which they apparently were considering at one point, not sure how far they got but there are a lot of cut scenes, I hear). They opted for leaving actual sex out of a film when it’s not necessary, something I wish more filmmakers would start considering.

    1. My point, though, is that our most common representations of men who have sex with men onscreen leave out the sex. Sex between men is much more palatable to the majority of people if they just don't have to see it - if they can instead consider homosexuality as "actually romantic [...] not just sexual". (Love between men and romantic attraction between men were not criminalized under the British penal code: the law only objected to the sex parts.)

      For me, the film creates Turing as someone who is a life-long homosexual. And then the film explains away all of his unique behavior through recourse to his homosexuality. And it is the way the narrative works to which I object -- We see Turing's point of view in the 1920s, a more third-person point of view in the 1940s, and the inspector's point of view in the 1950s (and later Joan's). It's a generic approach that allows us to feel like we know a lot about the central character but is always shy about actually giving us his point of view about things. The film leaves us out of his suicide, as well.

      Homosexual desire is definitely left out of the film, but that's just one part of what I mean. I'm saying that the film understands Turing as more or less permanently structured and unchangeable from his childhood on. And this is just not that interesting to me.

  4. I can see how it wouldn't be interesting, but unfortunately, it's not too far off from how he was in life. His writings are littered with references to Christopher as his ideal years after the teenager’s death. He just never got over it.

    I would not have included the suicide as an actual scene myself because they don't know if it was suicide now. The family's position is still accidental death, I believe, and more recent reviews of the evidence support that conclusion. The coroner essentially didn’t care and therefore didn’t investigate, not even bothering to test the apple.