Penitent Systems: The Imitation Game’s Failure

Image Credit: Henrik Olesen, How Do I Make Myself A Body?, 2008.

The Imitation Game, dir. Morten Tyldu, 2014. Runtime: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

Even inattentive cinephiles will have noticed the generous helping of biopics up for awards this year. It’s easy to see why. The ingredients for critical success are already there: ‘true to life’ characters and an audience comfortably fixed in their attitude towards them; a story that’s familiar, with details and dialogue publically accessible (unless, as Ava DuVernay found while making Selma, they happen to be owned by Steven Spielberg). Still, few biopics achieved the vertiginous success of The Imitation Game (2014), centred on scientist and war-time code breaker Alan Turing. The film even has a Wikipedia page dedicated to recording the 111 (and counting) international accolades it’s received. But, despite the universal praise, The Imitation Game is as rotten as the culture that produced it.

In the film, Turing transitions between familiar personae including, but not limited to, misunderstood kid, misunderstood neurotic, misunderstood genius, misunderstood war hero, and finally, misunderstood sexual outcast. The audience is invited to marvel at the man and to decode the enigma that is Alan Turing. Yet, the real enigma is how the filmmakers assembled a supporting cast even more snugly shoehorned into convention than the lead himself: the mistrusting colleagues, their frostiness assuaged on the cusp of breakthrough; the singular female, whose party trick is her display of competence; and the moment when everyone thinks it isn’t going to work out, and then it does. Much of the film feels snatched from a stock footage catalogue of BBC war dramas, from London in flames, sirens blaring to platforms bustling with evacuees as Churchill drones on the wireless. The film’s highs and lows, false dawns and emotional cues, are painstakingly choreographed so as to be instantly recognisable and in no way discomforting.

Only, the life of Alan Turing doesn’t fit into these rigid plotlines. The power of Turing’s story is that he failed despite his brilliance and was betrayed despite his unsurpassable service. By cramming the narrative into a formula that, necessarily, must end on a high and resolve its central problematic, the film evades the story’s essential truth and robs us of a dramatic encounter with the horror of late modernity. For nowhere is the totalitarian masochism of the system more apparent than in the retribution it takes upon its own champions. But The Imitation Game is sanitised of all that. Turing’s criminal conviction for gross indecency, and subsequent physical and psychological torment, is included as an afterthought – his suicide doesn’t even make the cut. The perpetrators we are invited to blame are a pair of jobsworth Mancunians whose personal homophobia motivates them to pursue charges that, we are led to believe, they could have let slide. And so responsibility is shifted from the mundane, merciless rationale of the state to the cruel irrationality of the individual. Judas takes the fall, Pilate washes his hands, and the eternal logic of the system carries on as it was.

Worst of all, The Imitation Game is never disturbing. The audience is charmed by the world that Turing lived in, by the society he saved, and by his devotion to the state that killed him. Despite his death, the film tells us it was worth it – that his life was a great triumph. Yes, his persecution was wrong, and deeply regrettable – but society’s changed. This sentiment effectively absolves the present. Turing received a royal pardon in 2013. He was forgiven, we must assume, on account of his achievements, the inhumanity of his conviction insufficient to warrant a pardon for the other 49,000 men so convicted. Indeed, Chris Grayling’s tribute wasn’t the only one to describe the man, fittingly, as “exceptional” – exceptional in deserving posthumous justice, it seems. Campaigners are now seeking for the convictions of the other “offenders” to be nullified too. Small print in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto accedes to this demand. We may admire the efforts of campaigners, but we may also wonder for whose benefit these pardons are sought. The direct victims are all dead, and though an official apology may be of comfort to their families, to pardon someone for a crime they did in fact commit is to wash over the violence of history. We could go back and alter the records of the purchasing of slaves, declaring those transactions null and void. But the truth is that people were bought and sold, and art, insofar as it interacts with truth, has a responsibility to display it in all its horror and to reveal to us the ways in which our society took root in the soil of that horror. By invoking retrospective condemnation, the present system is redeemed by its positioning of Turing’s life within its own Whiggish schematic. The Imitation Game is the system’s act of penitence, allowing it to find absolution through its belated recognition of the man’s work (albeit on its own imperialistic terms). In so doing, the film perpetuates the worst of all theodicies – that the system works everything out for the best in the end – and washes over the brute fact of the individual it crushed.

Rather than really looking at Turing’s life in all its particularity, those behind The Imitation Game attempted to pass off the source material as an enjoyable couple of hours at the pictures. Looking only to the success of that which has gone before, the artist sets about patching the episodes of a life into the same algorithm whose hallmarks we know so well, ironing out all idiosyncrasy, and presenting us with something that feels a little smoother to the touch, a little easier on the eye. This isn’t just boring, or trivialising – it causes art to fail in its task of representing the world to us. Casting different stories in the same mould, the same narrative structure, means that we only ever really hear one story. But the story of Alan Turing’s life is a different story, a story with immense critical potential, critical potential which, for the time being, remains untapped by the film world.

—Sam Winter

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