With the recent release of The Imitation Game, the British public has gained an insightful view into the breaking of the German enigma code, an operation that greatly contributed to our success, and was only made public in the Seventies after years of secrecy. It goes without saying that the main focus of the film focuses on the effort to decipher the Axis signals, however much of the narrative features flashbacks into the life of gay protagonist, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man who not only defeated the code, but also laid the foundations for modern computers. You’d be correct in assuming that Turing’s sexuality wouldn’t in principle have much to do with his pioneering work during the war, but the windows into his life both before and after this time, although often dramatised, shows that his sexuality, or rather society’s attitudes towards it, haunted him from his childhood until his suicide in 1954.
Turing’s experiences linked to his sexuality were not portrayed as a main theme of the film, but nonetheless were an important part of his character and tie into key events in the storyline. This fine balance between overly pressing the ‘issue’ of sexuality, and under-representing it is often very hard to achieve in any media platform, and there will always be those who feel it is wrong or inappropriate to bring someone’s preferences into the equation, and likewise some believe it to be perhaps the highest priority. In this case, however, director Morten Tyldum’s creation incorporates Turing’s orientation in such a way that it could be described as tasteful, as we grow to learn of the mathematician’s close relationship with a fellow boarding school student which not only developed his passion for cryptology, but led him to fall in love for what we can presume was the first time. This relationship plays out like the beginning of any heterosexual love story, which combines with the lack of any explicit comment on the fact that it’s a homosexual attraction, to normalise it, as without the historical context it simply becomes the build up to a typical teenage romance.
Despite this fairly neutral portrayal, Turing’s homosexuality is mentioned more openly during some of the wartime scenes, and the reactions from his colleagues surprisingly reflect modern day attitudes to sexual orientation. The acceptance and tolerance promoted in these reactions even goes as far as to pose no consequences for an engagement (and a rather spontaneous one at that) between Turing and his close friend and colleague Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), at least as far as she is concerned.
However, such contemporary-style tolerance isn’t completely widespread, as we later see Turing beginning to suffer the consequences of being part of a sexual minority in the 1950s. This is when we start to see responses that reflect the prevailing point of view, especially when we hear police officers throw about words such as “poofter” and “bloody disgusting”. Although harsh, it could be said that the director has a duty to ensure that the film is historically realistic, and it would not seem logical to say that sexuality would be an exception to this rule. Thus, as an audience, we have to accept what we see on the screen as a fact of the times.
The homophobic discrimination experienced by Turing intensifies and comes to a head towards the end of the film, when we learn that the once respected cryptanalyst has been offered chemical castration hormones as an alternative to prison. In this heartbreaking scene, the director manages to portray this tragic news in the same historically accurate light as the earlier comments from the police whilst evoking sympathy from the audience as Turing, in pain and delirious, is comforted by his old friend Joan Clark.
Prior to the credits the audience is informed of the many thousands of men that were criminalised before the ban on their sexuality was struck down in England and Wales in 1967, planting a first and final direct comment from the filmmakers.
We can never know for sure exactly how true to life the depicted reactions and attitudes to homosexuality are, but what we can see is that The Imitation Game has done well to provide a balanced perspective of Turing’s life; one that presents us with the often cruel realities of the past yet reminds us that times have changed enough for us to feel sympathy for this man and treat him as equal.