Monday, January 5, 2015

Imitation of (Gay) Life

Today I saw The Imitation Game, the new biopic of the British mathematician Alan Turing.  It has been decades since I read Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography of Turing, which the film is loosely based upon, but on reading some of the online discussion of the movie I found that some things that bothered me about its depiction of its protagonist were well-remembered after all.  I notice that Hodges is doing a book tour for a reprint of the biography, and is being cannily reserved about the movie's accuracy: he's "in Princeton to talk about Alan Turing rather than Benedict Cumberbatch."  As usual, many criticisms of The Imitation Game's departures from fact were rebuffed with protests that the film will send viewers to Hodges' biography.  I hope so, but I doubt it: it's a long, dense book.  For many people Benedict Cumberbatch will be Alan Turing.

One commenter on the IMDB message boards actually appealed to I'm Not There, Todd Haynes's biofantasia about Bob Dylan, as evidence that movies about a real person needn't be factually accurate.  Since Dylan is played in that movie by several different actors, including the female Cate Blanchett and a young African-American boy, I doubt that many viewers are going to confuse them with the real person.  I know better than to expect perfect accuracy from a biopic, but I also know better than to expect most movie viewers to distinguish between actors and the fictional characters they play; add another layer of impersonation and it's hopeless.  I noticed that some people defended Cumberbatch's performance as an accurate portrayal of Asperger syndrome, which they assumed the real Turing had.  If he did, no one knows for sure.  It's debatable.  The diagnosis didn't exist in Turing's lifetime.  But Cumberbatch gave such a convincing portrayal of a Turing with Asperger, who could doubt it?

Numerous people compared biopics to historical fiction, and there's something to that, but in the historical fiction I read, authors often include notes acknowledging, listing, and defending their departures from history.  The makers of The Imitation Game couldn't even get right the date of Turing's 1952 arrest for "gross indecency" with another male; they put it in 1951, and it would be interesting to know why.

Many of the inaccuracies in the film are arguably defensible as compression or rearrangement for dramatic reasons.  I'm not going to complain much about them here; others have done a good job of discussing them, though a writer in the Guardian got one thing seriously wrong.  He says that the film shows Turing intimidated into concealing the identity of a Soviet spy on the code-breaking team, because the spy (whom in reality Turing probably never met) threatened to expose his homosexuality.  "Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason?" the writer thunders.  Well, no, though I suppose some viewers might see it that way.  I thought the scene was meant to churn up sympathy for Turing: He couldn't turn in the traitor, or he'd be persecuted for his homosexuality!  And for what it's worth, Turing-in-the-film does later report the spy to a superior.

What did bother me was the way the film uses the hoary cliche of the lonely, tormented homosexual in its depiction of Turing. Yes, he was devastated by the early death of his first (but unrequited) boarding-school love. But he seems to have had a circle of good friends as an adult, and he apparently was pretty unconflicted about his homosexuality -- much like many other gay and lesbian Brits of his generation. He was even rather naive about it. One thing that annoyed me from the beginning of the film was that it implies that Turing didn't report the burglary of his flat -- the police refer to a neighbor's complaint -- and that his sexual relationship with the burglar was discovered independently by the police. In fact Turing reported the burglary himself and gave a detailed statement in which he casually referred to his relationship with the young man. That statement was used as evidence against him at his trial for "gross indecency." He wasn't "closeted," as many people referring to this film have called him. By portraying him as lonely and tormented, the film tries to win extra sympathy for him -- as though being arrested, convicted, and forced to choose between "chemical castration" and prison weren't bad enough. But it also plays into a Hollywood stereotype, that of the isolated, miserable, sexless homosexual, that for some reason is still with us. It's especially odd in a film from England, which has given us so many films featuring gregarious, happy, sexually active gay men.  And given the power of moving images to impress themselves on the mind, I expect that even those people who read print biographies of Alan Turing will find it difficult to replace Cumberbatch's quivering, fearful isolate in their minds with the more confident, unconflicted reality.