As a film, The Imitation Game is fine: a conventional, but not unenjoyable little biopic. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is distracting, the use of archival footage is sort of atrocious, but it’s suspenseful like a BBC movie, which is fine by me. But I’m less interested in it as a biopic and more as a queer film. A plethora of critics, queer and not, have determined that the film’s a safe, desexualized version of Turing’s life at this moment, possibly implying that it was a de-sexualization of Turing himself.
Rich Juzwiak at Gawker accuses the film of cowardice, writing, “The Imitation Game thinks it can get away with skirting the more salacious details of Turing’s life because it follows a gay man during a time when the revelation of such details could lead to his arrest.” The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman argues that the film is one “Big Gay Lie”, saying, “[The film] winds up feeling like one of those films where the real story, in this case Turing’s personal life, is happening off-screen.” But it’s Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution and an Editor-at-Large of Entertainment Weekly, who brings me to my main argument, tweeting:
The Imitation Game is what happens when homosexuality is understood as first a plot device, only secondarily a human reality.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 6, 2015
I’d seen most of these arguments prior to seeing the film, essentially diluting my experience. But my concern was less about thinking of the film as “truly representative of Turing’s sexual identity” and more its place as a queer film. As I watched The Imitation Game, I kept asking myself, and others even prior to the viewing, What constitutes a queer film? Does The Imitation Game count? Why or why not? What does it mean to depict queerness on screen?
These are all, I know, abstract questions that come down to different theories regarding film and queerness, and whose answers are much murkier than one would probably like. The vitriol thrown toward The Imitation Game made me consider films with queer characters that were not queer films and, conversely, films with straight characters, or at least a lack of queer ones, and yet still fit within that vague cinematic categorization. For the latter, it’s easy to look towards the work of Todd Haynes: an out filmmaker to be sure, his depictions of queerness exist primarily in Far From Heaven, Poison, and Velvet Goldmine. Yet, monumental films like [SAFE] and Mildred Pierce still qualify as piece of queer texts. Part of this is that both texts serve allegorical purposes: both Julianne Moore’s and Kate Winslet’s characters are adrift and othered in the culture they should hypothetically belong in; Moore even becomes allergic to it.
Theoretically, Haynes has an astute understanding of identity as this social construct: both characters, living in different versions of the same environment, are defined by their surroundings (as housewives), roles prescribed to them by the society they live in. Haynes’s main points in all of his films (including the identity-bending I’m Not There) is to examine and analyze these ideas and break them down, as these characters, in one way or another, react to their environment, transgress it, or break it down altogether. That’s the much broader, yet more opaque understanding of queerness, a concept that exists beyond sexuality.
There are plenty of films with peripheral, casual, and incidental queer characters without delving into ideas of identity or sexuality. Ironically, it’s Rent that, despite its heavy presence of queer characters, seems the least queer as a film. This is nothing on the musical, but screenwriter Stephen Chbosky and director Chris Columbus’s notion of queerness seems limited in relatively conventional terms and subsequent depictions. The queer characters on display, regardless of whether they’re given a song or not, are less inclined to investigate aspects of queerness that are, though conceptual, easily identifiable, like desire. It’s articulated expositionally in tracks like “Tango Maureen” and “I’ll Follow You”, products of Jonathan Larson and not the filmmakers. It ends up being more “queer-adjacent” than queer in and of itself.
Something to consider when using the phrase “queer-adjacent” is the consideration for the audience: who is this film for? Rent is for straight people, mostly, and it shows in its depictions of its queer characters as a palatable and watered-down version of queerness. Yes, it deals with heavy subjects (AIDS, homelessness, etc.) but without much complexity, and it’s mostly presented in an asexual way (similar to Philadelphia). That’s “fine” in the mid-1990s, when the Demme film and musical were produced; but a decade later, the depiction, at least with regard to the lack of nuance, feels dated. Who were those products for originally? The dominant culture, as a way of elevating visibility. So, these pieces of text were not made with a queer audience in mind, at least not at the forefront. Frankly, it doesn’t feel like The Imitation Game was either. It’s trying, though.
But, to come down on a more concrete definition of queer cinema, one may merely look to critic B. Ruby Rich. She described queer cinema as being able to articulate the “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identity and experience, as well as a form of sexuality that is fluid and subversive in comparison to traditional understandings of sexuality”, as well as heteronormativity. Essentially, it comes down to the character’s personal experience (I feel the queer experience is as singular as the POC experience) and social metaphor.
Where does The Imitation Game fit in in all of this? That’s the funny thing. Morten Tyldum’s film occupies an ambiguous limbo, perhaps best described as a film that desperately wants to qualify as queer but doesn’t know how to do it right. Some of the ingredients are there, but they feel half-baked. Alan Turing is gay. We know this because he says some version of “I am a homosexual” half a dozen times in the film. And we understand, based at least on the previous definition from Rich if not the aforementioned examples, that saying it isn’t enough. We have a backstory to Turing’s life, which informs the audience of the character’s budding sexual identity; he fosters a close relationship with a schoolboy named Christopher. And we know the relationship walks the line of the queer film. It’s the following aspects that particularly seem like they could qualify the film, but their execution hinders it. (Essentially, the film gets a gold star for effort and nothing more.)
There is, firstly, a visual articulation of queer desire. Secondly, there is metaphor. It’s true, there are dewy-eyed looks from young Turing to Christopher; it’s in these moments that there is a relatively impressive potency, but just short of perfection. For, though that desire is there, it feels more vacant than it should. I may be asking too much of queer cinema, but parting glances aren’t enough unless you get that perspective. The camera inhabiting young Turing’s mind and eye is the extra step this film needed. Internalized sexuality or not, the film’s metaphor for his queerness is a bit rough: Turing’s cracking of the Enigma Machine is the rough process of self-actualization, the cracking of his sexual identity, which is fine. This reeks of either a straight person’s version of queer metaphor or a bad writer’s version of the same. (The two are not mutually exclusive.) Towards the end of the film, there are cringe-worthy lines of dialogue: during a Turing test between the man himself and a police officer, “thinking differently” is a concept pounded into the audience’s collective heads, again an obvious metaphor.
This brings us back to Mark Harris’s comment about the film. Is the presence of Turing’s slow self-discovery backstory merely plot to inform Turing’s end? Is that a bad thing? I believe its work as plot is not bad, but not great. It works, but as Harris suggests, it struggles to understand queerness as essentially a human condition. Turing’s self-actualization does have an understanding of the human reality of being queer, just a grade-school level understanding. As with the looks of longing, the film plays with his sexual identity, but never seems to be brave enough to really allow us into his head.
This brings up another question: what does it mean to depict queerness on screen? So much of the outrage lobbed at The Imitation Game is the lack of sex. Yes, it’s nice to see our community get to express their desires on screen, but this is a limited idea of how to depict queerness. Joe Ehrman-Dupre’s perspective seems to be similar to mine, noting,
“It seems that both writers [Peter Knegt and Tim Teeman] are a) unsatisfied with the sexuality displayed (or not) on screen, and b) desirous of a more explicitly rendered sex life for Turing’s character as both an adolescent and an adult. I can sympathize with both positions… We cannot simply say that Turing’s ‘real story’ was his sexuality, just as we shouldn’t say that the code-breaking he did during WWII was his ‘real story.’ They informed each other, and, in my viewing of the film, Turing’s inability to connect with his heterosexual counterparts, and his patronizing, awkward embodiment, were perfectly adequate ciphers for the ‘personal life’ (or, from the critics’ perspectives, sex life) we do not explicitly see throughout the film.”
It’s interesting that so many writers have been vocal about the sex, or lack thereof, in The Imitation Game, which raises the question of how one should approach sexuality. On one side, there are aged representations of queer men as being asexual (Philadelphia, Will & Grace), beings that are never given the opportunity to desire or act on desire. Conversely, media appears to be working toward a normalization of queerness, bifurcated by a saturation of queer sex (How to Get Away with Murder, Looking) and a desaturation (Heartbeats, Tom at the Farm). (Whether or not this normalization is good is a piece of its own. However, it inspires the question of how we want queerness represented on screen, for fear of erasure or further discrimination.)
There’s a tricky understanding of what queerness looks like outside of cultural stereotypes. As Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder posits,
“If we define the term as the Chelsea public health clinic does, it simply means you’re a person who has sex with (and perhaps loves) someone of the same sex. But, in terms of acting, we’re really talking about a set of behavioral traits, interests, or ‘mannerisms’—the stuff that’s meant to set off a well-tuned gaydar. But that’s not a great definition either, because there are plenty of gay people who pass for straight, could pass for straight if they wanted to, and/or reject the so-called stereotype. And then there’s the somewhat controversial argument (which I espouse) that “gay” is really a specific cultural attitude that one must study and ultimately choose to wear atop one’s innate homosexuality. So that’s three definitions of gay, and there are plenty of others—I do not envy the straight actor who is asked to sort them out for himself.”
He was writing about acting, but his point is important regarding The Imitation Game, too, primarily in that queerness is so abstract that playing queer is a hard thing to do and doesn’t look like anything besides the inherited cultural depictions. On a side note, Cumberbatch’s performance is like a more sensitive Sherlock Holmes, keying more into the annoying, regressive “Idiot Savant” archetype that continues to be perpetuated. If there’s coded queerness in his performance, it’s blended into the aforementioned attributes.
However, while we may not be able to understand perfectly what queerness looks like, being a big blob of ambiguity, unless you have overtly coded individuals or people engaging in specifically queer “acts”, we do know what queerness feels like. Queer desire might not be inherently different from straight desire, but the cultural baggage of repression and shame very much informs its depictions. It’s where Tyldum’s humdrum direction suffers the most: as mentioned earlier, we do get some longing and desire, a thing Joe Ehrman-Dupre admires more than I do, but there’s something inhibiting that full experience.
For that, look to the Brazilian romance The Way He Looks, about a blind boy who falls for another boy who can see. The film’s explicit quality doesn’t matter (it’s not that explicit, to be sure), but this comprehension of the queer gaze, discerning a privilege one person has with the gaze as well as the one who doesn’t have it, is perceptive as to the complications of what ardor is and can be. For a sweet, simple, winsome romance, The Way He Looks says a lot without saying, or “depicting”, much at all.
It’s important to consider these implications because it’s rare we see a queer film get so much attention from mainstream audiences unless they end up being more “queer-adjacent.” The last such film to be lavished by the Academy in any way was Brokeback Mountain, which lost Best Picture, nonetheless. Is it a sign of progress that we’re more comfortable with these “okay” representations of queerness on screen at the Oscars? Only a few years ago, the truly extraordinary work from Colin Firth’s in Tom Ford’s A Single Man was lauded. And yet neither films were backed by the Human Rights Campaign, an issue better tackled by Teeman’s piece, but one that still confounds me given the amount of queer cinema just as worthy, if not moreso, of support from the HRC.
This leaves The Imitation Game essentially where we left it: a film that wants to fit into this qualification, but doesn’t know how to deal with its queerness in a mature and insightful way. It’s not bad by any means. I’m personally apathetic about the lack of sex in the film, because as far as understanding my queer identity, that doesn’t matter. As far as understanding queer cinema, that also doesn’t matter. The Imitation Game has the ingredients for a queer film: desire, metaphor, identity, humanity. And yet, no one told the chef exactly how the dish should be prepared and served.