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Desire and Longing: Making A Queer Case for ‘The Imitation Game’

Desire and Longing: Making A Queer Case for ‘The Imitation Game’

This post was originally published on regular /bent contributor Joe Ehrman-Dupre’s new blog I Wish I Knew How To Quit Film.

*Spoilers abound—take caution and proceed with care!*

I’ve found myself in a compromising position recently: I like The Imitation Game. More than that, I think that The Imitation Game presents a uniquely queer vision of a stuttering, stilted, nearly unspeakable sexuality that is rife with longing.

Most queer film critics would suggest that I am somehow aligning myself with a “safe” or “de-sexed” vision of homosexuality, a representation of Alan Turing—who tragically committed suicide after two years of chemical castration, his punishment under British law for the “gross indecency” of engaging in sex with men—that denies the very sex life for which he faced so much adversity, and eventually death. I believe, however, that the desire which The Imitation Game implies is rich and vital.

There are pieces of the argument against it with which I agree. As a gay film-goer, I find insightful, well-executed queer sexuality an incredibly fulfilling, and admittedly all too rare, on screen experience. I will also say that I have not read any biographies of Turing, and I am not an expert on the history of his mathematic/inventing contributions or his relationships; I understand that there are quite possibly numerous inaccuracies to Graham Moore’s script. I think we can all agree that as accurate a representation of Turing’s life as possible would be the best case scenario. I suppose I differ in that I believe the measured elision of explicit sexuality in this film suggests the tensions of the time in which it is set, offering one version of a historically-accurate, still-fulfilling queer experience.

In his piece, “The Imitation Game‘s Big Gay Lie,” Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast dissects an on-going Oscar campaign for the film which appeals almost entirely to Turing’s sexuality. “Honor this movie. Honor this man. And honor the movement to bring justice to the other 49,000,” reads the Human Rights Campaign-funded ad, with “the other 49,000″ being men prosecuted under the same gross indecency charge which Turing received. Teeman’s critique of the ad as separate from the main plot of the film—which focuses on Turing’s time spent cracking the Nazi Enigma code and creating the world’s first computer—and thus disingenuous is completely understandable. It reads as a socially-conscious Oscar campaign for a film whose trailers suggested a WWII war drama with a tiny gay secret (not the reality of the film itself, I would add). I can even get behind some of Teeman’s more explicit frustrations with the film, namely the unsatisfying ending which unforgivably relegates Turing’s fate to a title card. Yes, we should have seen the ways chemical castration forever altered this man’s life, and yes, we should have seen how his deep sadness and loneliness ultimately led to suicide. That is undeniable, and were I to judge the film on the merits of its final ten minutes, I would find myself in the same camp as all of the critics I’ve read and admire.

Still, I cannot get behind the main thrust of their arguments against the film, the most frequent of which is that it lacked depictions of gay sexuality, and thus tackles the subject of homosexuality ineffectually. “The ‘gay scenes’ in the movie feel like afterthoughts, often conveyed without speech,” writes Teeman. He continues: “There is not a speck of gay sexual desire on screen.” In another critique, Peter Knegt wonders, “So even if Christopher [presented as Turing’s first love during his youthful boarding school years] and Alan never brought their relationship farther than the film suggests, why not give us a kiss or two anyway?” He makes another suggestion: “I get it — they needed to acknowledge Turing’s sexuality somehow. But why not with just a little bit of edge? Maybe Joan [Turing’s sometime fiance and co-worker] could catch him in bed with a boy?”

It seems that both writers are a) unsatisfied with the sexuality displayed (or not) on screen, and b) desirous of a more explicitly rendered sex life for Turing’s character as both an adolescent and an adult. I can sympathize with both positions. Knegt and Teeman make persuasive arguments; I admittedly struggle to argue against them as I would never be the first to suggest a reduction of gay sexuality as a means of furthering character development and plot. I will not deny that it is important to foreground our protagonist’s eventual fate with an understanding of what he did “wrong.” And certainly I would not be opposed to seeing sexuality explicitly displayed in the film in ways it was not. Would it make the film stronger? I’m not sure.

Therein lies my concern. We are given the film we are given. We can critique it, we can wonder about how it could be different. In the end, however, Knegt’s revisionist desires are, perhaps, just as historically inaccurate as some of the film’s other diversions. They suggest an alternate reality for Alan and, in my opinion, they would also consummate the desperate longing and isolation which pervades our on-screen Turing’s life and gives it the uniquely queer feeling I have alluded to. Another point of contention is Teeman’s assertion that “the real story, in this case Turing’s personal life, is happening off-screen.” That cannot be accepted outright. We cannot simply say that Turing’s “real story” was his sexuality, just as we shouldn’t say that the code-breaking he did during WWII was his “real story.” They informed each other, and, in my viewing of the film, Turing’s inability to connect with his heterosexual counterparts, and his patronizing, awkward embodiment, were perfectly adequate ciphers for the “personal life” (or, from the critics’ perspectives, sex life) we do not explicitly see throughout the film.

The fact is, a display of that “personal life” would make a different movie altogether, and perhaps a great one. Maybe the movie we got is the “safer” of several options, that word indicating better box office returns, more chance for awards recognition and, yes, less sex. And if we want to think of The Imitation Game as the standing biopic of Alan Turing, I cannot argue against the ways in which it devalues the agency of its protagonist. As Knegt writes of Turing’s arrest and interrogation, “we are told this story from the point of view of the detectives, not Turing.” Would Turing’s point of view be the sex he was having? Surely it would include it. However, I genuinely believe that more accurate for the time, and also more affecting, is the notion that his point of view is the one colored by—and perhaps nearly erased by—the forces and ideologies which surround him. From that perspective, what does sexuality become?

Yes, probably an escape in some ways, and that is where we could have seen Alan actually embody and understand himself through consummated sexual activity. But more likely, sexuality becomes unknowable, mostly unspoken, secret (which carries its own masochistic allure, especially for young Alan), and, it would be difficult to deny, a feeder of guilt.

One could argue that this perspective makes Alan pitiable rather than strong, that a modern-day biopic looking back at the past should right some of the wrongs and show his fulfillment in this regard rather than wallow entirely in the alienating effects of sexual difference. I simply do not think that film would so strongly represent the difficulties faced by Turing in a culturally and temporally specific way.

Benedict Cumberbatch, along with the actor playing Turing’s younger self, Alex Lawther, can be credited for much of the expression of this complicated, largely internalized sexuality. The time-hopping script links Alan’s stilted notion of unspoken desire in the present with his first lovelorn experience at boarding school. As we see him struggle to bond with the men at Bletchley, the U.K.’s headquarters for all things secret military service, we also see young Alan truly become comfortable for perhaps the first time in his life.

He meets Christopher, a handsome peer, and the two inform each other’s experience at school. It is clear that Alan dotes on Christopher with an intensity that the other boy, seemingly more self-assured, does not. Still, they share a fraternal bond which oozes sexual tension. These scenes of bonding are loaded with long, lingering takes of Alan’s face, looking at Christopher as he departs, smiling to himself about these new, unabashed feelings. For me, it was never not entirely clear that Alan’s desires were awakening, that this young man would love nothing more than to embrace Christopher. Did it happen? Could it have happened? Those are things I am unsure of, though I’m inclined to think that the situation would not have allowed for any physical contact to occur. The real question is: was I longing for some explicit recognition of Alan’s sexuality? No. The subtlety made it all the more realistic for me.

As their friendship progresses, Christopher instills in Alan a love for coded messages. They pass sweet notes to each other for a time—including one intercepted by a teacher who cannot read it (there’s that delicious secrecy)—until Christopher, it’s reported, dies while on holiday. He apparently had some sort of terminal illness that he never told Alan about, and as the headmaster delivers the news to the adolescent boy, the camera sticks to his passive face. We watch him as he denies his feelings for Christopher outright, and the emotional acrobatics occurring within—all the tension and desire twisting, leaping, and swinging wildly about his head—are never lost on the audience. In fact, the moment of tragedy mirrors every other time we’ve seen young Alan think about Christopher, but here, something is lost.

By this time, we’ve gotten to know Alan in the present. His acerbic personality and arrogance are defense mechanisms belying an untapped wit and eagerness to please. We can’t help but notice, once again, the lingering looks Alan bestows on Hugh Alexander, his hunky, womanizing co-worker; he is in awe of the man, but his desires are misplaced. Cumberbatch infuses this sadness with such vivacity, however, that it is difficult to paint Turing as the tragic hero. He is hyper-intelligent, funny, disarmingly sweet at times, and a loyal, good friend to Joan, despite the sadness to come of their engagement. It would also be difficult, it seems, to paint some sort of affair, rendezvous, or other sexual situation onto Turing’s time at Bletchley, as Knegt suggests. The intense desire in Alan’s eyes, both past and present, informs the work he is doing there and suggests far more about this man’s sense of place in the world than a sex scene could.

The third layer of the film’s narrative, the detectives’ investigation of Turing, is, I suppose, the most problematic piece of the sexuality puzzle. We do not see Alan engage in any form of sexual contact, and yet that is what he winds up being prosecuted for. He does describe the scene, stating that he “entreated a young man to touch [his] penis.” I can understand how this may not be enough for some viewers, and I admit that there could be something gained from a scene showing what is described: the pleasure Alan derives from such interaction, a look inside the underground gay scene, the clandestine quality of the affair. The clear narrative vision, though, is suggestive of a more tragic and, it seems to me, more realistic understanding of the treatment of homosexuality at the time. The act itself does not matter to these officers; Alan is different, he is mentally ill, and he is deserving of punishment.

That we do not fully see that punishment is a cop out, and a truly tragic end for Alan would better serve what the narrative has built toward—and better honor the long-tainted memory of Turing’s heroic work. That we do not ever see Alan’s sexuality fulfilled in any explicit way is likely born from a messy combination of things: it may be a way to attract more audiences; it may be a way to lower the MPAA rating and sell more tickets; or, it may be a concerted narrative vision, based on the historical treatment of homosexuality.

The Imitation Game could have taken on the establishment and presented Alan Turing as a fully sexualized human being. I would like to see the movie that does so one day. The reason I defend this film—one that I liked, but did not love—is because there is no one right way to present sexuality on screen. We can be frustrated when a film doesn’t give us what we want, but is that not part of the artistic vision and license at work? People may call it a “safe” vision of a famous gay man, and they are entitled to that experience of the film. For this gay viewer, with a concerted academic and personal investment in queer film, there are many reasons to fault The Imitation Game. The elision of explicit sexuality in favor of desire, longing, and unfruitful love is not one of them.

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