Saturday, December 27, 2014

Alan Turing: autistic in ‘The Imitation Game’

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.
Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company Publicity

For Christmas Day, Jonathan and I (joined by a neighbor, also named Jonathan) saw The Imitation Game at Varsity Theatre in downtown Ashland. This film dramatizes an effort by Alan Turing in England during World War II to create a machine able to crack the Germans’ “unbreakable” Enigma code.

A major theme of the film was the tragic way that Turing’s life was destroyed by a criminal conviction of homosexuality. But what resonated with me in the portrayal of Turing (by Benedict Cumberbatch and young actor Alex Lawther) was a man who appeared to be on the autism spectrum.

In an interview with the U.K.’s Register, director Morten Tyldum insisted that people involved with the film didn’t “want to put any sort of label on Turing’s character.” But the awkwardness of his efforts at social conformity, his rigid protocols to separate food on his plate and an early consuming interest forming the basis for his career resonated deeply with me.

There may have not been any “deliberate” labeling, but this autistic film-goer recognized herself in the character brought to life on-screen. Turing “made sense,” while the people who surrounded him behaved in confusing ways.

At the boys’ school when his friend introduces him to ciphers, Turing says that don’t humans already communicate in a type of cipher? They say things and he can’t understand them. (I’m paraphrasing.)

In one scene, a colleague repeatedly tells Turing that the guys are “going to lunch.” After several attempts to elicit a reaction, the colleague says that he had asked Turing if he wanted to join them for lunch. But he didn’t! At no time did this guy say, “Hey, Alan, do you want to go get lunch with us?”

Later, Turing tries to break up with his fiancee Joan Clarke in order to keep her safe from an investigation into Soviet spies. Clarke (portrayed by Keira Knightley) is underwhelmed by his admission of homosexuality. His sexual orientation won’t dissuade Clarke from marrying him, so Turing tells her that he’d only asked her to marry him to keep her around so she could help crack the Enigma code.

In response, she says the guys were right, he is “a monster.”

This made no sense to me. Didn’t she know he was trying to protect her?

Assuming an accurate understanding by Clarke of Turing’s motivation, wouldn’t a more appropriate response have been, “Alan, I understand you said that to protect me, but your attempt to do so was wrong. I’m not going anywhere.” Because she wasn’t! For the first time, she wasn’t letting her parents or social attitudes prevent her from doing something that would make a difference.

This portrayal of Turing adds dimension and poignancy to an otherwise moving film. The “character” of Turing desperately wanted to be a “normal” person.

My impression was that what “normal” meant to Turing was not sexual orientation but rather not to be what, at the time, was a label that did not exist. But as an older Clarke tells the older Turing, she wouldn’t wish him normal. She rode the train to visit him through a town that wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for him, and purchased her ticket from a man who likely wouldn’t be alive.

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