There is an unavoidable dilemma in approaching The Imitation Game. You can see it one of two ways: it’s a Benedict Cumberbatch film, or if you can allow yourself to be a little more muted, a film that stars Benedict Cumberbatch. Both these perspectives will invariably colour your perception of what will unfold on screen.
This isn’t necessarily a comment against Cumberbatch, but rather a recognition of the amount of popularity and hysteria that he’s managed to whip up, especially when playing a certain kind of character. Hawking, Tietjens, Sherlock, Smaug, Necromancer, Khan, Assange and now Turing. These are all variations of a theme. A line from The Imitation Game actually surmises the character type quite well. It’s what you might call the ‘irascible genius routine’. I’ve nothing against it. In fact, I’d be the first to admit that he plays the type pretty well.
It’s no surprise the biopic angle is quite tempting, Hollywood production houses love to drink from this well of usually pedestrian emotional sensibilities and market them on a large scale. Perhaps less cynical hearts might claim that The Imitation Game is the vehicle through which Turing, a person misunderstood and persecuted throughout his life, might finally receive some kind of redemption in contemporary public consciousness, with his dignity ‘restored’ and his actions no longer tarnished through the lens of “gross indecency”.
However, there is the unmistakable feeling that this is less a case of Cumberbatch playing Turing as is, than Turing’s characterisation tinkered with to fit with the popular sensibilities of the sort of character type that Cumberbatch has come to be known for. Yes, such a cinematic choice allows Cumberbatch to once again excel at a character type that he’s almost come to own over the years. But such a reductive view of Turing’s personality and portrayal also robs the character of a lot of other nuances that would have really made the film a fitting biopic. Cumberbatch shines as a detached genius. However, I was never convinced this was the Alan Turing.
Furthermore, the way Turing’s sexuality was handled in the film was troublesome. This links directly to the way studio executives intend to manage the iconography of Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s undeniable that the magnitude of Cumberbatch’s celebrity status is immense. A casual browse through Tumblr and the growing number of ‘Cumberbitches’ or the repackaged ‘Cumber-Collective’ will re-enforce that. And as so happens with any celebrity, there’s always a massive behind-the-scenes commodification process that occurs; a process that’s more amplified when major production studios bank on their ‘stars’ to make it rain on the box office. After his breakout success, Benedict Cumberbatch can be anything, but unfortunately, he’s no longer just an actor. Like any celebrity, he’s a product that needs to repackaged, redesigned and presented over and over again to audiences in a manner that’s going to be most profitable. Benedict Cumberbatch is a brand, a t-shirt, a slushie, a slogan, an erotic fantasy. At best, he’s the unachievable Ideal and at worst, he’s a verb.1
However, the burden of managing a modern icon is innately a business commitment. In order to maximise the profit that comes from the bankability of an icon, it’s understandable that you’d want to minimise the risk. The variable here is the audience. How do you control that? You know that people are going to go in throngs to their nearest theatres to see the film. Of course, they want to see their icon on screen. But one of the things that has fuelled our continued fascination with icons is that as a viewer, you often project your sensibilities onto the icon on screen. It’s a connection that happens beyond the divide of the screen, on a personal level. So the question then becomes, how do you present a character on screen that can somehow embody values held by or engage with all these different people who’ve paid money to see that film? In biopics especially there’s the attempt to make audiences feel like they can vicariously coexist with the person on screen, albeit only for a few moments. The easy answer to that question is, of course, you go conservative. You present the commodity in a manner that is least likely to offend the sensibilities of viewers; a subjective decision giving way to the status-quo.
It is this inherent conservatism, coming from a business perspective, that spills over to the artistic sensibilities of the final product. The Imitation Game wants to be critical of the persecution and blatant mistreatment of people on the basis of their sexuality. It’s a film that wants to make a strong point – that Turing was wronged, and on a macro level, that no one deserves to be persecuted or discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. These are strong and quite significant messages, especially given the current political and social dynamics across the world today. It’s sad and utterly mind-boggling then, that the film doesn’t even commit to the messages that it wants to send out.
We know that Turing was gay. The benefit of hindsight and a Google search can tell you as much. Turing’s sexuality is also the emotional ‘hook’ of the film, given what we know about his persecution for being a homosexual. However, to my amazement, there was no appearance or a mention of any of adult Turing’s partners throughout the film. None, zilch! Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing also aligns the character more with asexuality than homosexuality.
And if that wasn’t enough, Keira Knighley’s Joan Clarke is pretty much set up as a heteronormative ‘romantic’ interest to Cumberbatch’s Turing. It’s painful, actually painful, to see the extent to which the biopic narrative tries to normalise the ‘love interest’ angle between the two main leads, even though such attempts are not only futile, but actually somewhat insulting. In a film about a man who is persecuted for being a homosexual, the narrative is preoccupied with setting up a heteronormative, but ultimately doomed ‘union of minds’ between the two leads. And this is a film that wants to send out positive messages about sexuality in society. Talk about mixed messages.
I can see why they did it, though, a ‘safe’ bet for a film which would undoubtedly get a wide audience. That doesn’t excuse the fact that there was definitely a missed opportunity here. The Imitation Game could have been a chance to send out some really positive messages about sexuality. However, the inherent conservatism embedded in the narrative proves to frustrate those aims.
The management and commodification of celebrities and modern icons has always been an enduring struggle. It’s tempting to be conservative and try and maximise profits from a business perspective. But from an artistic point of view, the emergence of modern icons such as Benedict Cumberbatch is a chance to send out some really positive and engaging messages to a wide audience, messages that could help shape the debate in the public sphere about important issues that impact our society on a day-to-day basis. I know, that might be too much to ask, but surely it wasn’t too much to ask of The Imitation Game, and if that film couldn’t do it, what can?