“A Pale Imitation: the new Turing biopic is a far cry from the fascinating truth”

Annie Burman
January 10, 2015
The Imitation Game (2014), Black Bear Pictures, Bristol Automotive, dir. Morten Tyldum

The Imitation Game (2014), Black Bear Pictures, Bristol Automotive, dir. Morten Tyldum

The fortunes of the dead change easily. Before his death, Alan Turing  (1912-1954) was already being forgotten, to the extent that the  theoretical computer he posited was sometimes referred to as a Türing  Machine, his surname garbled among the many German names of the  discipline. Now, Turing is a household name. His most famous achievement  is certainly his efforts to break the German Enigma cipher at Bletchley  Park, but he is also well-known for his work in mathematics, computer  science, logic and biology. As an openly gay man at a time when  homosexuality was illegal, something which lead to him ultimately being  put on trial, Turing has also attracted attention as a representative  for LGBT history. In recent years, Turing has been in the news over and  over again. In 2009, Gordon Brown issued an apology to Turing for the  prosecution he suffered. The centenary of Turing’s birth was celebrated  in 2009 with documentaries, articles and exhibitions, as well as with a  blue plaque on King’s College Cambridge, where he spent most of his  academic life. After several petitions and a failed bill in the House of  Commons, Turing received a Royal pardon at Christmas 2013. With all  this attention, it was only a matter of time before Turing became the  subject of a biopic. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch  and Keira Knightley, was launched in theatres in the middle of November.

The Imitation Game starts by threatening to break the fourth wall, as  a voice-over instructs the audience to listen without interrupting or  judging. It is a strong beginning, and there are positive things to say  about the film. Visually, it is beautiful. A lot of work has gone into  the clutter of Turing’s home and work-place, and Cumberbatch is  wonderfully dishevelled. When well-dressed, he sports a differently  checked shirt and tie, taken right out of a studio photograph of Turing.  When not, he manages an impressive scruffiness, seldom seen in period  dramas. With scenes ranging from the manor-house-turned-codebreaking  headquarters Bletchley Park during a blackout, to King’s Cross crowded  by children being evacuated, The Imitation Game revels in skilfully shot  period scenes. It is war-time British visual staple-food done well.

However, none of what is to come after those opening moments is as  elegant. The Imitation Game suffers from an incurable affliction – a bad  script. After the imaginative opening, the film lapses into clichés.  More often than not, the dialogue is painfully predictable. When the  initially reluctant co-workers suddenly stand up and one by one announce  “if you’re going to sack Alan, you have to sack me too”, it is  obviously meant to be a touching scene, but my thoughts went at once to  the fact that this very line is spoofed in Muppet Treasure Island  (1996). When a line is so well-established that a Muppets film can make  fun of it, it cannot be used seriously without seeming ridiculous. The  script has its moments, particularly in the scenes of Turing at school  (beautifully acted by Alex Lawther) and the interaction between Joan  Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Turing, but it is only when attempting to  be humorous that it manages to employ clichéd scenarios well.

However, the uninspired, clichéd dialogue pales in light of The  Imitation Game’s biggest problem. The film is riddled with historical  and biographical inaccuracies, both big and small. Some are merely  annoying (Turing was never a professor), or sloppy (Turing was taken to  trial in 1952, not 1951), and would have been easily amended. Others  range from the absurd to the offensive, which is made worse by the fact  that the film’s credits proclaims it to be “based” on Andrew Hodges’  excellent biography Alan Turing: the enigma (1983, latest edition 2012,  Vintage). The events of the film have only the most passing resemblance  to the real events described by Hodges.

The historical progression of the Second World War is completely  ignored. Britain’s changing fortunes during the war, which were keenly  felt at the home front, are unnoticeable. Bletchley Park remains a team  of six people doing breaking, decryption, translation, interpretation,  emendation and distribution of intelligence throughout the war. In  reality, Bletchley Park grew from ninety employees in 1939 to almost  nine thousand in 1945, and from the very beginning, internal security  was very strict. To anyone who knows the slightest thing about the  Enigma cipher, the codebreakers in The Imitation Game seem very slow.  The ‘great breakthroughs’ are in fact basic statements about the  machine, such as that it never encrypts a letter as itself, and come  late in the war. The Bombe, the electromechanical machine which made it  possible to break Enigma on an industrial scale, is presented as an  early computer, and the computers which Turing built later in life (in  the film taken from their context at Manchester University and placed  instead in Turing’s living room) are presented as direct descendants of  it, which was by no means the case.
Several major players in breaking Enigma are never even mentioned. The  Polish cryptanalysts who had done important work before the war are only  mentioned once, and even important British cryptanalysts, such as  Dillwyn Knox (the most senior codebreaker early in the war and, like  Turing, a Kingsman) and Gordon Welchman (co-inventor of the Bombe along  with Turing) are completely absent. Not only is Turing portrayed as  doing everything that was in fact a team effort, he also becomes central  in diffusing the intelligence from the decrypts, by keeping the Navy  (and presumably the Army and RAF) in the dark along with a lone MI6 man,  rather than leaving this to the huge intelligence machinery of  Bletchley Park, the Armed Forces and the Secret Services. In the  simplified parallel reality this film is set in, two mathematicians and  an intelligence officer have a better understanding of military strategy  than the Admiralty, who evidently have no understanding of cipher  security or intelligence procedures.

The most startling inaccuracy may be the fact that Turing is  repeatedly suspected of being a Soviet spy, both in the scenes set in  the 1950s and in the Second World War. In the 1950s, the inspector  investigating a burglary in Turing’s house is certain that he is ‘hiding  something’. As Turing was at Cambridge and his military records are  secret, he draws the conclusion that he is probably a Soviet agent. When  it turns out that what Turing is hiding is the fact that he is  homosexual, the inspector insists that there must be something more. In  the storyline during the war, Turing is constantly accused of spying for  the Soviet Union, to the point that military police search his desk for  anything incriminating. The spy is in fact John Cairncross, allegedly  the fifth man of the Cambridge Five, who in reality was at Bletchley  Park but in an altogether different section from Turing. At this point,  Turing is not exculpated by the film, but instead shown to cover up the  identity of the spy. It can only be hoped that these two entirely  fictitious scenarios – that Turing was accused of being a spy and that  he covered up espionage – will not make their way into the public  consciousness. These claims are nothing less than slander.

The espionage storyline uneasily shares the space with the storyline  about Turing’s relationship with his coworker Joan Clarke, which is far  more interesting, and unlike the spy story largely true. The inclusion  of this friendship and brief engagement was one of the major  controversies while casting and filming was going on, but it is  surprisingly well-handled. It is uncommon to see a relationship between a  gay man and a straight woman be treated as emotionally valuable, rather  than as just a cover-up. Turing’s homosexuality is certainly not denied  or obfuscated. The film’s portrayal of it is not reliant on a  relationship, but is instead presented as a fact and an identity. Often  the mere existence of queer characters is not seen in fiction – their  sexuality must be cemented by actions. The Imitation Game breaks at  least this mould. But while we should be able to tell stories about  queer characters without having to prove their sexuality to the  audience, not including any of Turing’s relationships with men makes me  uncomfortable. All we see is his unrequited boyhood love of Christopher  Morcom, a school friend who died before going to university. Throughout  the film Turing continues to be obsessed with his dead friend. It is  undeniable that Turing’s love of Morcom played an important role in his  adult life, but he had other loves and other relationships. The film’s  fixation on this first crush, in conjunction with the Clarke storyline,  makes Turing look repressed and closeted, which could not be further  from the truth.

The fact that Clarke’s storyline, like the rest of the film, is full  of changes and inaccuracies undermines some of the sensitivity and  awareness which is shown in writing her relationship with Turing. Joan  Clarke was one of three women who worked on primary cryptanalysis of  Enigma, having been recruited to Bletchley Park by her geometry  supervisor at Cambridge. Although she was paid a third of what a man of  the same background would get, she was a valued member in the Naval  unit. By the end of the war she held the position of Deputy Head of Hut  8. The Imitation Game feels the need to twist this story, and instead  has Clarke be recruited through a crossword puzzle advert (a means of  recruitment which did occur, but not in this case). She rejects the  offer of working as a codebreaker as her parents disapprove. In order to  ensure that she comes to Bletchley Park, Turing employs her as a  secretary, and then smuggles out classified material so they can work on  them at night. Her university is never mentioned, denying her the  prestige of having been at Cambridge, which is bestowed only on Turing.  Clarke’s very presence at Bletchley Park becomes dependant on Turing.  She is not there primarily because she has earned it, but because he  wants her there. This is taken to an extreme when he attempts to sack  her when breaking off the engagement (instead of changing the work rota  so they would not have to see each other, as he actually did). Her high  position at Bletchley Park at the end of the war and her post-war career  as a cryptanalyst at GCHQ is completely ignored.

In social interactions, Clarke becomes the maladjusted Turing’s  conscience and capacity for empathy, which feels rather like she is  there to provide a ‘woman’s touch’. The scenes where Clarke explains to  Turing how to interact with his co-workers descend swiftly into gender  essentialism, and leave me with a worried feeling that this relationship  is supposed to ‘fix’ him. The changes to Clarke’s background make the  sexism of the 1940s much more obvious, but end up simplifying what was a  complex system where women’s work was simultaneously essential and  devalued. The sledgehammer sexism feels rather like a pat on the back  for modern audiences than a meaningful portrayal of the 1940s. Between  this and the homophobia, The Imitation Game does not deal well with the  subtleties of opinions of the past.

Keira Knightley gives a good performance, but it saddens me that the  film industry has yet again succumbed to the need to make the female  main character flawlessly good-looking. Clarke has been described as  awkward, bespectacled and suffering from a bad stammer. Knightley’s Joan  is neat, self-confident and well-groomed – a far cry from the timid  maths geek that Clarke’s contemporaries describe her as.

The decision to downplay Clarke’s eccentricity is certainly gendered,  but it also serves to single out Turing as strange. He is made out to  be the only eccentric at Bletchley Park, something which was hardly the  case. Turing is unmistakably written to be autistic. He struggles with  social interaction, has no sense of humour, and goes through intricate  rituals for everyday things. Most notably, however, he is made out to be  rude and insensitive. This must be a case of the writer reading up on  the autism spectrum, seeing a mention of ‘lack of demonstrated empathy’  and extrapolating that this means being an unpleasant person. This is  wrong both in general and specifically. It has been plausibly theorised  that Turing was on the autism spectrum, but he is time and time again  described in our sources as kind, funny and likeable (as long as he  liked you – otherwise he would not bother). The Imitation Game reduces  Turing to a stock character, and does this fascinating historical person  a huge disservice. The film’s inability to deal with subtleties ruins  any good intention it has.

Most of all, The Imitation Game leaves me wondering why one would  make all these changes. Considering that the film claims to be based on  Hodges’ biography, we must assume that the filmmakers have read it. This  would mean that they are either impossibly inattentive or are making  these changes knowingly. Some must be made for dramatic effect, like the  antagonism between the codebreakers, Clarke’s recruitment and the spy  story. Other changes seem rather to be made for more patronising  reasons. Do they honestly think that viewers would not be able to handle  the progression of the Second World War, the organisation of Bletchley  Park or the interpretation of intelligence? These things are treated  like off-putting distractions from the ‘actual’ narrative, and nothing  we should have to worry our heads about.


It  is an unassailable fact of biographical fiction that it is never  possible to include everything. Jasper Fforde phrases it excellently in  his novel Something Rotten: “If the real world were a book, it would  never find a publisher. Over-long, detailed to the point of distraction –  and ultimately without a major resolution.” One reason why Turing’s  life is so convenient for biographical fiction is that with very little  effort, it is possible to find a theme, a red thread, and not one but a  number of major resolutions. There is no need to change things around,  or to exclude large parts of his life in order to get a good story out  of it. Reality outshines fiction at every turn.

The Imitation Game wastes countless wonderful real-life moments that  would have translated so well onto the big screen. I would have wanted  to see Bletchley Park as the displaced senior common room, where  civilians and servicemen work together in an unsteady truce. Turing and  Clarke should fashion their own chess-pieces out of clay and fire them  in Turing’s landlady’s oven, talk about the Fibonacci numbers of  daisies, go for a holiday in Wales and realise when they get there that  Turing has forgotten his ration-book. Their engagement should start with  Turing coming out and Clarke shrugging, and should end with him quoting  Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol in an unknowing moment of  foreshadowing. Turing should come to work in his gas-mask because of his  hay-fever, and pose his teddy-bear Porgy with a book in front of the  fire before supervisions. He should take homophobic coworkers to task  and down a pint for a bet.

But the Turing who buried silver ingots in the woods around Bletchley  in case of a German invasion, who made gloriously bad puns and who  knitted Möbius ribbons in his spare time is not to be found here. He has  been sacrificed in favour of tired clichés and patronising  simplifications. Turing deserves better than that.


All by
Annie Burman