The Imitation Game: Bringing Alan Turing's classified life to light
El Reg talks to the film's writer, director and actors about Britain's unsung hero
Interview For director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore, the life of Alan Turing is about more than the fact that he was gay, or that he was a genius or that he was one of the keepers of arguably the biggest secret of World War II. Both film-makers agree that Turing’s story is about outsiders and how being an outsider can be exactly what’s needed.
“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” Alan’s boyhood friend Christopher Morcom tells him, in a line that’s repeated throughout the movie.
Without any film or audio recordings of Turing, just letters, biographies and the recollections of people who met him when they themselves were just children, Tyldum and Moore set out to try to tell the story of a man whose life was shrouded in secrecy. Not only was Turing’s most famous work – breaking the German Enigma code during World War II – so top secret that it remained classified for forty years, he was also forced to hide the fact that he was homosexual during a time when expressing that was still outlawed in Britain.
“If this was all fiction and we tried to sell it as fiction, people would say, 'This is too thick, this didn’t happen, this story is too unbelievable',” Tyldum told The Register.
“But it’s all there, his life was so fascinating – everything he did and how he was put in the middle of all this secrecy and these high end games. And it’s such an important story to tell because there’s so many people who don’t know anything about him, he’s such an unsung hero, it’s a humbling experience to be part of this and to spread his legacy.”
Watch actors Matthew Beard and Allen Leech talk Alan Turing, hard sums and Jay Z with El Reg
Moore said that the thing that drew him to Turing as a character was how much he was separated from those around him.
“He was so different from everyone around him because he was one of the great mathematical geniuses of the 20th Century, he was just smarter than anyone else around him. He had these revolutionary ideas that were decades ahead of their time. And he was a gay man at a time when a kiss between two men was literally punishable with two years in prison.
“He was separated from everyone else around him by so many things, that was what I found most captivating and we talked about trying to convey that in every scene,” he said.
Plaudits abound for The Imitation Game, both the film and the performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. But critics (and your Reg hack) have also pointed to some issues in the representation of Turing as a genius and as a homosexual.
While many of Turing’s reported eccentricities could be read as potentially indicative of autism or Asperger’s syndrome, those kinds of diagnoses weren’t readily available at the time so framing him as such is not entirely accurate. Indeed, because it’s such a trend in Hollywood at the moment to equate genius with issues like these, hamming up his eccentricities comes across as a bit of movie-fication of his life.
But Tyldum insists that they didn’t want to put any sort of label on Turing’s character.
“From a lot of the research we did, we had people say that he probably had some version of autism or Asperger’s or something like that, but we deliberately said that we didn’t want to portray him as [that]. Because the whole movie is a movie that tries to celebrate outsiders, celebrate those who are different, those who think differently and how important they are, they shouldn’t be labelled as somebody with a diagnosis or a disease or anything like that. To me it’s more important that he was just a unique person,” he said.
Turing's time at Bletchley was a 'sexual desert'
Director Morten Tyldum talks to El Reg about the representation of Alan Turing's homosexuality in The Imitation Game
There has also been some criticism that Turing’s homosexuality wasn’t always handled well by the film, particularly as there are no scenes of Turing with a man. But Tyldum pointed out that Turing himself said in his letters that his time at Bletchley was a “sexual desert”.
And Moore said that you don’t need a sex scene in a movie to “prove” a character is a gay.
“I think that Alan Turing’s homosexuality is first and foremost in the film and it’s a tremendous part of the film,” he said.
“I think that if it was a film about a straight mathematician, people would never say, 'Oh, how come there’s no sex scenes so we know he’s straight?'”
“Alan Turing is a gay character, it’s a film about a gay man and in so many ways his status and position as a closeted gay man allowed him to achieve all of the wonders that he did in his life. He was someone who was different to those around him … and being outside of the societal mainstream allowed him to see the world in a way that no-one else had before and we wanted to make a film about that,” he added.
Regardless of the accuracy of the portrayal, what is clear is the reverence that Tyldum, Moore and Cumberbatch have for Turing. Moore said it was very important to all of them to have the support of his family and colleagues in making the film.
“In bringing a true story to light, you want to pay tribute to Turing and to everyone at Bletchley Park and that’s a tremendous responsibility and so having their support from day one, having them talk us through their memories of them was so important,” he said.
While Tyldum said that the challenge of making a film about Turing was not the fact that he was a genius, but that he was such a complex character.
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“He was strong and driven and determined and at the same time awkward and shy, he had great strength and he was very fragile in many ways … [He was] also a man who’s carrying layers and layers of secrets, as a closeted gay man and as someone who’s interested in puzzles who ends up in the web of MI6 with all the secrets that he has to carry all the time.
“He was such a fascinating and many layered man and that was the challenge – to try to piece him together and do him justice.” ®
The Imitation Game will be in cinemas in the UK on 14 November 14 and the US on 12 November.