If you haven’t heard, it seems that The Imitation Game (named for the famous Turing Test, an Alan Turing biopic, is in the works. Recent news (February of this year) has let us know that Benedict Cumberbatch will star as Turing, the troubled genius whose work helped to crack the Enigma Code and helped the Allies win World War II. Also confirmed is Keira Knightley, who will likely play Joan Clarke, a coworker of Turing’s within Hut 8 at Bletchley Park (the center of the UK’s WWII decryption establishment), and, briefly, his fiancee. I’ve also heard rumor that Matthew Goode of Watchmen fame will also star in the film.
There’s been talk of the script since 2011 when it was made public on The Black List, a survey of the “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. You can check out the 2011 list here, although the script has since been aggressively hunted and removed from the internet. However, over at ScriptShadow, there is a fairly thorough review of the screenplay, which is positive although it highlights a discomfort with Turing’s homosexuality coming off as a “quirk” in the film.
That being said, this is certainly not the first time Turing’s life story has been played in film. There is a lovely 1996 BBC television film entitled Breaking the Code, based on a play released a decade before, which stars Derek Jacobi (Turing) and Amanda Root (Pat Green, based on Joan Clarke).
The play itself was written by Hugh Whitmore and premiered in 1986 in London’s West End and then moved to Broadway in 1987. It cleverly links Turing’s work in cryptography, the mathematical protection of secrets, to the secrets he kept in his own life, primarily his homosexuality. Both the play and the television adaptation were lauded for their treatment of this part of Turing’s life, treating it as it was, a part of him which in his own lifetime would come to overshadow his greatest achievements. Receiving a GLAAD award, a Broadcasting Press Guild Award, and a pair of BAFTA nominations, Breaking the Code received near-universal critical acclaim both onscreen and on stage. In fact, stage productions continue to this day and are well-reviewed almost without variation wherever they are, including the Theatre Royal in Northampton and the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA. While this is certainly to the credit of the respective production and performance teams, it is also a credit to Whitmore’s authorship.
At the Performance Workshop Theatre in Baltimore. Mark Horwitz as Turing.
Alan Turing was, of course, prosecuted for homosexual activities in 1952, as it was illegal at the time. He was convicted, lost his security clearances, and chose chemical castration in the form of diethylstilbestrol (a synthetic estrogen) over a prison sentence. Two years later, he would commit suicide. You can head over to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for a humorous take on just how incredibly bigoted and idiotic it was that Britain lost one of its greatest minds to institutionalized homophobia. Gordon Brown apologized in 2009. No pardon has been issued, despite calls from the public and scientific communities, though a bill has been introduced in the House of Lords.
Moving forward, this is my primary concern with The Imitation Game. I have no doubt that Cumberbatch can bring the character to life, though I’ve heard arguments that he will have to be careful to keep his Turing sufficiently distant from his Holmes. I worry that the film will play the thrill and genius of his work, and leave his homosexuality, his persecution, and the grand injustices that drove him to suicide a footnote, incidental to his academic talents. To ignore the homophobic betrayal of a talented patriot by his own queen and country, if you will, is to do a disservice to Turing’s memory, to LGBT persons everywhere, and to anyone who might benefit from the full, genuine telling of Alan Turing’s life story.
Breaking the Code can be found, in its full 90 minutes, on Youtube. If you’d like to learn more about Alan Turing (and I hope sincerely that you would), please visit the Turing Digital Archive. Lacking both the time and the talent to fully explain his genius and his contributions to the Allied effort and the state of the modern world, I recommend that you see his work for yourself.