Yesterday the Toronto Film Festival announced that Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game” won their annual People’s Choice Award, and a predictable trajectory begins: Toronto will very likely get to brag that for the third year in a row (and sixth time in seven years) their audiences chose an eventual best picture Oscar nominee. It’s a very safe choice to continue that tradition — and also a very safe movie in general. Particularly compared to last year’s TIFF People’s Choice Award winner, “12 Years a Slave.” Like that film, “The Imitation Game” is a biopic of an extraordinary man who was brutally persecuted. Except “12 Years a Slave” was actually a brutal film to watch, and one that largely did justice to the horrors faced by its persecuted protagonist.
“The Imitation Game” is about Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film), the British mathematician and computer scientist who was largely responsible for two of the greatest achievements of the 20th century: Ending World War II, and inventing the computer. But just years after doing both, he was criminally prosecuted for being gay and forced to undergo chemical castration. Despite, you know, saving millions of lives and drastically changing the technology of the entire world.
The film certainly does a good job honoring Turing’s professional achievements. The work he did to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma code (inventing the computer in the process) is the film’s primary narrative and it’s presented to us with extraordinary production value and a tight, exciting pace. But that’s obviously not all there is to Turing’s story, and it’s when director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore try do the rest of it justice that “Imitation Game” feels like a missed opportunity. The fact that Turing was gay is not shied away from — it’s inarguably a big part of the film — but it’s the way it goes about portraying it that feels diluted and lazy. I never felt the unimaginable turmoil Turing clearly went through. And I never felt like the ridiculous tragedy it was that the British authorities destroyed the life of one of their country’s true heroes was properly honored.
When the film does move away from the thrills of Turing and company trying to crack the Enigma code, it does so by shifting back and forth between two other narratives: Turing’s experiences as a boy at a 1920s boarding school, and the investigation he faced for his homosexuality in the early 1950s. Both are intended to present the tragedy of Turing’s life, but both do so in questionable ways (note: major spoiler alerts ahead).
At the boarding school, a young Turing meets Christopher, a boy who introduces him to the very ideas of de-coding that would eventually help him do the remarkable things he did. He also seemingly becomes Turing’s first love. They become inseparable, passing notes that decode into mildly romantic messages. But this narrative isn’t quite given enough screen time to feel as powerful as the film intends it to be. And is presented very tamely. It’s clear Turing loved Christopher (he goes onto name the machine that saves the world after him), but it’s ambiguous as to how far it goes. “The Imitation Game” clearly blends fact and fiction here and there for narrative effect (I’ll get to that later on). So even if Christopher and Alan never brought their relationship farther than the film suggests, why not give us a kiss or two anyway? Considering the tragic end of their relationship, and what a huge catalyst it was for Turing’s life (World War II ended and you are reading this on a computer because two boys fell in love at a boarding school!), it would have been much more impactful to consummate it even just a little bit.
More problematic is the storyline involving the investigation. A few years after the war ends, two detectives are on to Turing — but not because they think he is gay. Because all of the information surrounding his involvement in the war is classified, they suspect he is a spy. Eventually, they figure out what we already know and charge Turing instead with homosexuality, effectively destroying his life and pushing him to suicide. Oddly, though, we are told this story from the point of view of the detectives, not Turing. Why are we identifying with them instead of Turing, and why are they given such considerable screen time as they slowly figure out Turing’s real secret? These detectives are really not even necessary characters to begin with. The fact that they trump any real perspective on Turing’s final years from his own point of view is troubling. This was where we really could have been taken inside the mind of the Turing, and instead we get pushed farther away from him. We basically get a couple scenes of Turing post-World War II, most of them as he’s being interrogated by the detectives. We don’t see anything about the men he was sleeping with at the time that led to his charges. Save a tiny scene where he explains what happened to him to Keira Knightley’s Joan (his ex-fiance), we don’t see the effects of his chemical castration. And worst of all, we don’t see his suicide or the dark experiences that led up to it. We find out Turing died on a title card after the film ends.
When Turing’s sexuality is brought up within the narrative surrounding cracking the Enigma code, it’s also done so in an uninspired and cautious way. The first time Turing actually admits he’s gay, its when John Cairncross (played by Allen Leech of “Downton Abbey” fame) reacts to Turing’s concerns that he shouldn’t marry Joan by matter-of-factly responding “because you’re a homosexual? I suspected.” It’s hard to imagine that in 1940 Cainrcross would even suspect Turing’s sexuality let alone be so blunt and calm in suggesting it. And it’s hard to swallow this tactic in introducing Turing’s secret because Caincross and Turing’s relationship is largely fabricated — at least according to Andrew Hodges, the biographer whose book “The Imitation Game” is based on. Last summer, Hodges was quick to criticize the film’s screenplay before it even started shooting. He said he was “alarmed by the inaccuracies in it,” notably with respect to Turing’s relationship with Cairncross, saying that they working on different projects and never would have even met.
It eventually becomes clear that the reason Caincross keeps Turing’s secret is to use it to blackmail him later on in the film. Caincross turns out to be a Russian spy, and when Turing discovers this he threatens to tell everyone he’s gay if Turing turns him in. But if Hodges is correct and the two never met, why bother with this tired cat-and-mouse game? I mean, I get it — they needed to acknowledge Turing’s sexuality somehow. But why not with just a little bit of edge? Maybe Joan could catch him in bed with a boy?
Another issue Andrew Hodges had with the script was Joan herself. He said they were nowhere near as close as the film suggests and only engaged “briefly” (the films suggests it goes on for years). This I actually didn’t find so problematic. While the film might extend their engagement beyond the truth, it never suggests their relationship is anything but a platonic friendship Turing in part develops with her to cover himself. And their scene toward the end of the film when he tells her he needs to end their engagement because he’s gay is by far one of its most powerful. Joan retaliates by telling him she doesn’t care, and that they should just stay together anyway and focus on work. He responds by telling her “I don’t care for you. I never did.” Whether this happened or not, watching this compassionate beard-ery on Joan’s part and this inner-darkness on Alan’s is about as deeply human as “The Imitation Game” gets.
In the end, it’s clear what “The Imitation Game” was going for. Like “The King’s Speech” before it — which also won the Toronto People’s Choice Award and also takes on a mid-20th century British figure — it seems so concerned with being crowd-pleasing and conventional awards-bait that it takes away the opportunities it has to go from being a good film to a great one. Which is a lot less offensive when a film is taking on the King of England. King George VI didn’t have to wait until 2009 for the British government to finally officially apologize (following an internet campaign). He didn’t have to wait until last Christmas Eve for his daughter Queen Elizabeth to finally grant him a posthumous pardon. What happened to Turing is too appalling to be reduced to such diluted storytelling. It’ll probably end up getting a boatload of Oscar nominations anyway, and the only hopeful thing about that as far as I’m concerned is that it will lead fans of the film to seek out further information — like Andrew Hodges book, perhaps.