Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Imitation Game, Alan Turing, and the Cynicism of Hollywood

Some time ago I reviewed a novel called The Holmes Affair, by Graham Moore.  I was not impressed by Moore’s effort, and at the end of the review expressed my concern that he had written a speculative script about Alan Turing called The Imitation Game which, on the evidence of The Holmes Affair, in particular his inability to convey the nuances of English life, would be as authentic about Turing as the 2000 film U-571 was about the capture of an Enigma cipher machine (i.e. not at all). Moore sold his Imitation Game script to Warner Bros for a seven-figure sum, and Leo DiCaprio was pencilled in as the lead.  That bizarre piece of miscasting has been rectified, with Benedict Cumberbatch now set to play Turing, and Keira Knightley as his, well, his love interest.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, an odd choice it would seem judging by his CV, is set to direct.

Based on other roles Cumberbatch has played – Stephen Hawking, William Pitt the Younger, Vincent van Gogh, Joseph Hooker etc – he should have no trouble making Turing a believable, and sympathetic, character.  But that still leaves the script, and the suspicion that Moore just isn’t the man to trust with a convincing depiction of England in the 1940s and 50s, what it was like to be a homosexual at that time in general, and what it was like to be Alan Turing in particular.

My fears were re-aroused by an article in the Sunday Times, 23 June 2013, written by the paper’s arts editor, Richard Brooks (‘Enigma of Keira as Code Breaker’s Lover’).  According to the piece, Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges has attacked the script “for exaggerating a love affair and making a fictional connection to a notorious spy.”  The script was supposed to be based on Hodges book Alan Turing: The Enigma, but given Hodges’ comments, the word ‘loosely’ should be added.  The probability increases that my initial misgivings are not going to be allayed.

The two main criticisms Hodges makes are that the filmmakers have exaggerated the strength of the relationship Turing had with Joan Clarke, his Bletchley Park colleague and briefly his fiancée, than is warranted by the facts; and that they have invented a relationship with another Bletchley employee, intelligence officer John Cairncross, later exposed as the ‘fifth man’ in the Cambridge spy ring.  There is no evidence that Turing even knew Cairncross because Bletchley projects were rigidly compartmentalised and Hodges argues that Cairncross has been included in the script merely “to make it more like a thriller”: perhaps a bit like the 2001 film Enigma.

What about Turing as a man who spent a lot of time at his desk?  Hodges’ allegation is that the script fails by “showing virtually nothing of Turing’s extraordinary skills as a scientist and computer designer.”  I suppose you could just shrug and say, “Hell, that’s Hollywood,” but surely Turing deserves better.  With much the same thought, Hodges wrote to Moore, whom Brooks correctly refers to as “a feature movie novice”, with these worries.  All he got back, he says, was an assurance that Turing would be shown doing marathon running and interacting a bit more with colleagues: “This would make him less wimpish and nerdish,” Hodges concludes.  Let’s hope he’s making some decent money out of the process of being disillusioned.

So what did the film’s producer Teddy Schwarzmann, speaking from New York, have to say to Brooks about these charges?  Firstly, the film is “a drama not a piece of entertainment.”  Say that again Teddy, it’s not going to be entertaining?  Presumably he only means it’s not going to look like a Michael Bay film, for which we should definitely be grateful.  Then Teddy says, “We don’t want to fictionalise events but there are some creative liberties”, which I think means they are going to fictionalise events.  Perhaps sensing a little scepticism emanating from the other end of his phone line, he continues: “When we come over [to England], we are also going to get in touch with some other experts on that period.  We know how very important Turing is to you over there.”  That is good to know, if somewhat patronising, though the experts he has in mind will probably be there to make sure the telephones are of the right period rather than to tell Teddy that the script is nonsense if that turns out to be the case.

Hugh Whitemore’s superb 1986 play Breaking the Code didn’t need to make Turing’s story into a thriller, or distort him out of recognition.  It focuses on Turing in a quiet and persuasive way, and gives the character based on Joan Clarke just the right emphasis in his life.  It would be nice if Moore could use it as a model, but it is unlikely at this late stage; Schwarzmann told Brooks that “we start filming in the UK very soon.”  If Hodges is correct in claiming that the producers are trying to move into thriller territory, then they will be open to the charge of a disrespectful distortion of Turing’s life in the pursuit of boffo box office.

It is a puzzle why Cumberbatch would want to have anything to do with this.  Perhaps in his enthusiasm to inhabit another interesting character he has overlooked any deficiencies he saw in the script.  Or perhaps he thought he could exert some leverage to improve it.  Unfortunately it looks like the problems run too deep, a matter of vision rather than emphasis, and will not be improvable by a quick rewrite.  Given the roles Cumberbatch has played in the past, I’m sure his Turing will be great, but the danger is that his performance will be a jewel in a dung heap.

Update: 18 December 2014

Having now seen the film, I can safely say that it bears no relationship to a dung heap whatsoever.  It must have helped that Warner Bros dropped out when DiCaprio lost interest, and after falling into the hands of the Weinstein Company The Imitation Game is a workmanlike if rather stolid treatment of Turing shown in three time periods: school at Sherborne (an outstanding performance by Alex Lawther looking much younger than his years), his time at Bletchley Park, which is the heart of the film, and the last wretched period of his life in Manchester.

Benedict Cumberbatch of course shines even though, or should that be because, he plays Turing as being some way along the autism spectrum.  The film has received a fair amount of criticism for its inaccuracies and distortions, but somebody as complex – downright cerebral – as Turing has to be translated into an audience-friendly format, so far-reaching simplification of the facts is to be expected, and some spurious tension injected to keep it all ticking along.  It doesn’t always come off if the viewer has some knowledge of the subject, and the sub-Frankenstein motif, Turing trying to recreate his lost love Christopher Morcom as a machine intelligence, seems particularly misplaced.

Reservations about massaging history aside, it’s not a terrible effort overall, and better than advance word suggested.  Which leads one to suspect that while Graham Moore is credited as sole author of the screenplay (and executive producer), other hands were involved in its development as it is not the hash that one might have expected on the strength of The Holmes Affair.  Andrew Hodges’ book is also prominent in the credits (with that all-important caveat ‘based on’ to let the film off the hook of scholarly accuracy).

So in hindsight, was Hodges mollified by the way his very chunky biography was adapted into a crowd-pleasing movie?  I thought not on 17 August 2014 when my wife and I heard him give a dreadfully poor rehashing of his thirty-year old book at Bletchley Park in which he fidgeted constantly as he spoke and conducted a losing battle with PowerPoint. (Fortunately we had attended a lecture given by James Grime at Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences the previous month, ‘Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine’, which not only lucidly explained Turing’s life and work, with brilliant AV support, but included a demonstration of the Enigma machine owned by Simon Singh.)

James Grime and Simon Singh's Enigma cipher machine

During the question and answer session that followed Hodges’ turgid presentation my wife asked him for his opinion on the forthcoming film, bearing in mind what he had said in the Sunday Times.  He was dismissive of the question and declined to be drawn, flatly refusing to offer a view and blandly stating that we should wait and see after it was released.  When she politely asked again, dissatisfied by his evasiveness, he just blanked her, an astonishing act of discourtesy.  I can see his point though.  He has made a lot of money out of the film, both from rights and selling more copies of his book, freshly reissued only two years after the last one, the 2012 ‘Centenary Edition’, with yet another new preface slapped on to freshen it up, so it is understandable that having bitten the hand that fed him once, he was loath to do it again.  But the fact that he could not bring himself to say nice things about the film implied that he had not changed his views, only learned discretion.

From the finished film it is clear that Hodges’ concerns were partially misplaced.  Keira Knightley was certainly present but Joan Clarke’s relationship with Turing was not exaggerated, nor was Turing’s homosexuality downplayed, and while Cairncross is still there to give proceedings a little zest, it would take more than that to make The Imitation Game resemble a thriller.  The scene where Turing discovers that Cairncross is a spy and Cairncross immediately blackmails him into silence by threatening to expose his homosexuality has legitimately created some upset as it suggests that Turing would have colluded in treason, but Turing does eventually tell Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6, only to discover that British Intelligence knows about Cairncross already, so his initial reticence doesn’t really matter.

As to Hodges accusation that the script showed ‘virtually nothing of Turing’s extraordinary skills as a scientist and computer designer’, I think it is fair to say that Cumberbatch did convey Turing’s remarkable abilities as best he could within a script that had to appeal to a mass audience, while unfortunately being guilty of straying into clichéd mad boffin territory that has to combine a trade-off of unusual intellectual talent with marked personality defects.  Finally, Hodges said in the Sunday Times that when he wrote to Moore he was told that we would see Turing running marathons and interacting with colleagues, which would ‘make him less wimpish and nerdish.’ We see Turing run a couple of times, though just around fields, and of course he interacts with colleagues, the initial friction with them and their growing respect and support being a key development of the plot, so he certainly isn’t wimpish.  But nerdish?  Of course he is:  He’s Alan Turing!

Contrary to producer Teddy Schwarzmann’s preposterous claim that the film would be ‘a drama not a piece of entertainment’, it is entertaining if not always particularly dramatic.  It’s not the disgrace that Hodges and I both feared it would be from Moore’s novel and the early drafts of the screenplay that Hodges saw, even if it’s not quite the tribute that Turing deserves either.  Against the odds Cumberbatch has I think adequately conveyed the brilliance and the tragedy of Turing’s character.  The flaws that exist lie firmly with the script, which is guilty of failing to trust the audience’s intelligence.

Update: 24 February 2015

It would seem that my reservations about Graham Moore’s script were not shared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the awards ceremony held on Sunday, 22 February 2015.  To my surprise, far from considering it flawed they thought highly enough of Moore’s work to award it the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.  The predictions beforehand certainly did not deem it a clear front-runner and its success may have had something to do with the vigour of the Weinstein promotional campaign, after The Imitation Game was overshadowed by The Theory of Everything at the BAFTAs, than with any inherent virtues of the script itself.

Still, Moore gave a heartfelt acceptance speech which was a big hit, and he came over as genuinely nice.  I think he was lucky as there may have been some horse-trading, giving The Imitation Game the best adapted screenplay award as consolation for director Morten Tyldum losing to Alejandro González Iñárritu, and of course Benedict Cumberbatch losing out to Eddie Redmayne in the best actor category.  It will be interesting to see how Moore’s career develops; after this success he may want to steer clear of novels in favour of screenplays, which will be no bad thing.