Heartbreaking enigma of The Imitation Game

CODEBREAKING ENIGMA Alan Turing (1912-1954).
CODEBREAKING ENIGMA Alan Turing (1912-1954).

THE first time I tried to see The Imitation Game with my husband, the session was solidly booked out.

On the surface I was annoyed, but deep down I was incredibly pleased, knowing that a full house of holidaying Australians was being exposed to the story of Alan Turing, code-breaker, computer innovator and gay man now transfigured by time into an unassailable hero.

At our second attempt, we booked but ended up in seats down the front. Craning my neck up at the enormous screen, I realised something in me still could not quite come to terms with how this film’s gay protagonist garners such excellent box office.

I’ve known Turing’s story for many years – I feel his tragedy keenly as one of the first generation that missed out on electro aversion therapy and chemical castration by a fraction of time.

“When you have to wait more than 20 years between screen heroes, you realise how straight audiences take theirs for granted.”

Seeing the way he trounced the entrenched straight male fraternity at Bletchley Park, as his keen mind turned the tide of a terrible war, all the while knowing how betrayed he would be by those he saved … well, it was heartbreaking.

His legacy was all the fuel I would have ever needed to overcome fear and just be myself as a teenager, standing on Turing’s shoulders.

Yet the very nature of his achievement – hidden and classified – took him from my generation until it was too late. So many of us slipped easily and quietly into our own closets and codes, fashioned in the shadows of sodomy laws and HIV/AIDS.

We silently air-punched for our beloved Alan Turing from our ridiculous seats. We lionised him, raised him up without hesitation, even though we knew we weren’t seeing the whole truth in Graham Moore’s excellent debut screenplay.

Plenty has already been written about the inaccuracies of The Imitation Game – you’ve got the usual casting concerns, like Keira Knightley not being a plain enough Joan Clarke; the wrong name for Turing’s Enigma-breaking machine; spurious spies and an exaggerated antagonist in Commander Alastair Denniston.

But to focus on all that is just so much dissembling avoidance.

Not since Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia (1993) have screen audiences been exposed to a three-dimensional gay protagonist in a mainstream drama. I don’t count Brokeback Mountain – those cowboys were not even out to themselves.

Why is this so important? Well, because when you have to wait more than 20 years between screen heroes, you realise how straight audiences take theirs for granted.

It wouldn’t matter how much they altered the margins of Alan Turing’s life story, or shuffled facts to make a workable three-act plot structure, the fundamentals are not up for debate and need little embellishment. The Imitation Game is true to the man’s core experience. His tale follows the very equation of heroism.

Yet the film has its detractors. Films with gay heroes will inspire unsettled, contrary resentment until all the fairytales behind the great archetypal stories and their happy ever afters get rewritten and rediscovered, until they allow for all human experiences.

BROTHERLY LOVE Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.
BROTHERLY LOVE Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Also preying on peoples’ enjoyment levels is the fact that The Imitation Game is a tragedy. Like Philadelphia, there is no other possible outcome for the protagonist than one in which Turing is worse off than where his story started.

But this is not Hollywood killing off the queer to make a point: it’s the truth. The untimely death of anyone, even gay geniuses and HIV/AIDS sufferers, hurts like hell, and most of us are only just letting such feelings in.

To fully understand it, this film is best compared with Fred Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark – the story of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, accused of killing their baby daughter Azaria at Uluru in 1980. Another relentless real life miscarriage of justice that made audiences finally look at the awful truth via nothing more complex than a recreation of the salient facts.

These stories cannot be assimilated in a two-hour cinema experience. They are in our minds before we buy our tickets and they linger long after our popcorn is finished. They are bigger than whether we like the movie or not.

The cause for hope is that the Chamberlain’s complete exoneration was due, in part, to writers and artists adapting their story and exploring it in multiple forms, just as Alan Turing’s WWII service was rediscovered by writers and artists long before the British establishment posthumously overturned his gross indecency conviction.

And now the push has begun in Britain for the pardoning of the tens of thousands of similarly convicted gay men.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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