Alan Turing on Stage and Screen

A statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, by artist Stephan Kettle. Photograph: Sjoerd Ferwerda, via Wikimedia Commons.

A statue of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, by artist Stephan Kettle. Photograph: Sjoerd Ferwerda, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was a big week for Alan Turing dramatizations. On Monday, the UK and US trailers for the Turing biopic The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, were released, and on Wednesday, the 102nd anniversary of Turing’s birth, the Pet Shop Boys premiered A Man from the Future, an opera they wrote about Alan Turing, at the BBC Proms. Both works are based on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma.

I heard about the movie first from Christian Perfect at the Aperiodical. It seems to focus on Turing’s contributions to cracking the enigma code. Here’s the US trailer.

And here’s the UK trailer.

This morning, James Grime, a Turing and Enigma machine expert, wrote about the trailers, also for the Aperiodical. Grime has made several videos about Turing and the Enigma machine himself (see here, here, and here). His post is quite thorough, and it will help me go into the movie with a little better idea of what is factual and what is embellished. Grime’s review is largely positive. He writes, “Sure there are inaccuracies, but I think that is forgivable in a dramatisation of events. I think the film will actually inspire people to find out more about Turing, Enigma, and the work at Bletchley Park.”

Jeffrey Bloomer wrote on Slate’s Outward blog that the trailer was “disgraceful” in the way it failed to portray Turing’s sexuality, saying it, “frames the movie as a wartime epic and romance between Turing and his contemporary, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). For viewers in-the-know about Turing’s sexuality, there are some coy allusions to what’s really going on (‘What if I don’t fancy her in that way?’). But it’s not long before we’re back to tender scenes of the photogenic couple in duress.”

I felt like this criticism was overblown. First, I think Turing’s homosexuality is better-known than Bloomer realizes, making the allusion not so coy to a large number of viewers, particularly in the UK. (I could be wrong about that, of course.) Second, while I hope the movie doesn’t “straightwash” Turing, I also hope his accomplishments, not his sexuality and persecution, are the focus of the film. In a two-minute trailer, I thought the amount of time spent alluding to his relationships and sexuality was about right. And while his relationship with Clarke is probably overstated, the two were engaged for a short time, and we can hardly expect a major movie not to exploit that fact a bit. I’m curious how much the script has changed since Hodges criticized it on this matter last year.

I’m more concerned with another inaccuracy the film, pointed out by Grime: “The film seems to be setting up [Commander] Denniston as an antagonist to Turing, which is probably a great disservice to Denniston, who by all accounts understood the difficultly of the work, deliberately recruiting the professor type, and was proud of their achievements.” Although Grime says that others in the military may have been less supportive of the Bletchley Park work than Denniston, this seems like a fairly big problem. It changes the way I will watch the film more than the embellished romance with Clarke.

A Man from the Future, on the other hand, focuses as much on Turing’s sexuality as it does on his science. The opera is not nearly as plot-oriented as a movie. It features snippets of narration drawn largely from Hodges’ biography interwoven with choral songs. Bits of Morse code bubble up here and there in the music. When work on the opera began, the Queen had not yet pardoned Turing for his so-called “gross indecency.” At the time, Neil Tennant, half of the Pet Shop Boys, was quoted as saying, “Of course the reason they won’t pardon Alan Turing is because they’d have to pardon all those homosexual men.” Now Turing has been pardoned, but the others have not been. The end of the opera notes, “an exception was made. The convictions for gross indecency of tens of thousands of other men, dead, and alive, remain unpardoned.”

You can listen to the BBC Proms concert online for the next 29 days. A Man from the Future starts around the 37 minute mark. The Imitation Game will be showing up at some film festivals early this fall, but most of us will have to wait until November to see it. I’m looking forward to it!

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2 Responses to Alan Turing on Stage and Screen

  1. Bart Venard says:

    Any chance you have a link to the bbc concert it has gone offline? – rick @

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