SMC Review: The Imitation Game

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I wanted to watch this film when it was out in the cinema, but I just missed it which was gutting. I was delighted when Mr Shandy picked it up over Easter and we watched it together last night.

Alan Turing’s story is very dear to my heart. A few years ago, I was working in Manchester full time in a building just off Piccadilly. I got the train in every day, because it was cheaper than driving and having to park, and I used to spend my lunch times wandering around the area surrounding the building, which included Canal Street (part of Manchester’s infamous gay village) and some of the buildings of Manchester University.

When weather permitted, I used to sit and have my lunch next to Alan.

Alan Turing

Alan’s memorial is in Sackville Park, sat right between Manchester University and Manchester’s gay village. If you’re in town, I suggest you go say hello.

I got to be quite fond of him. I didn’t know his story beforehand, but during my time working in Manchester I was deeply unhappy, very lonely and having somewhere to go where I didn’t feel totally alone was a little bit of sanctuary. I was working in an administration based role for a higher education research committee and I was trapped making tea and coffee and taking minutes for meetings that I longed to be taking part in. I had the intellect and knowledge to understand and put into context everything that these people were saying and I was stuck in the kitchen doing the washing up and unable to contribute the things I wanted to say. I felt like I was being wasted and under-appreciated. Alan was a great listener when I was going through all of that crap.

When I read up on his story, that respect I had for the real Alan Turing only increased. So when The Imitation Game came out, it was put straight onto my ‘must watch’ list.

There have been other films about the breaking of the Enigma code, but this one was heartbreaking in its honesty and affection, not stinting in showing the darkness of Alan’s story and experiences, but also celebrating his achievements as the acts of genius that they undoubtedly were.

What I loved about The Imitation Game though, is that there were two heroes who appealed to me greatly. The other being Joan Clarke.

Joan studied at Cambridge, like Alan, and was awarded a double first in Mathematics (the equivalent of two first class honours degrees in one qualification). Not only that, but she was that year’s Wrangler (highest scoring third year candidate in Mathematics).

However, because of Cambridge’s policies she was not allowed to actually graduate because she was a woman.

My feelings on such notions shouldn’t really need explaining. Joan was a genius, quite possibly on a level with Alan, but her abilities and potential were even more squashed on account of her sex. While Alan was forced to undergo a chemical castration on account of his sexuality towards the end of his tragically short life, he was given a precious handful of years where his abilities and inspirations were given a full stretch of encouragement and room to grow. It wasn’t enough for either of them though. Not nearly enough.

The Imitation Game shows a little of how hard it would have been for Joan to overcome societal embedded prejudice to even get to Bletchley Park, let alone be taken seriously in her work.

It is fitting that Alan is shown as the hero who opens the door for her. Because he saw and respected her intellect and abilities and saw past her status as ‘woman’, not recognising it as a barrier to the work she could do, and most importantly not helping her just because he was trading on being a ‘nice guy’ who expected a personal pay off for his help and assistance somewhere down the line.

In reality, Joan was recruited by her former academic supervisor, but she was a close friend of Alan’s and he routinely switched the shifts around so that he could work with her and they spent a lot of time together and enjoyed many hobbies and shared interests, even after their engagement was broken off. I am not surprised that Joan was not ‘fazed’ by Alan’s confession of homosexuality to her. It must have been such a relief to find a man solely interested in the contents of her mind rather than the shape of her body. How few and far between those must have been at that time.

Joan excelled ‘for a woman’ at Bletchley Park. She became deputy head of Hut 8. But she was paid less than the men and felt that she was prevented from progressing in her career, even though Hugh Alexander described her as one of the best cryptanalysts he had ever worked with.

She was awarded the MBE in 1947. How she wasn’t made a Dame for the depth, quality and importance of her work, I will never understand. Dinner Ladies and Lollipop Men get made MBEs for faithful service, and fully deserving of the honour they are. Joan’s work saved millions of lives. It’s not in the same category. Joan returned to work at Government Communications HQ ten years after she married, despite her failing health, and only fully retired when she reached the age of 60.

Joan and Alan were both heroes of Bletchley Park and neither of them truly received the credit they deserved for their work while they were in their prime. Joan’s work was stifled by the heavy secrecy around the Bletchley Park activities until shortly before her death, and Alan was dead from cyanide poisoning by the age of 41. While widely believed to be a suicide, I give some credence to a theory that it might have been accidental death, and so I can’t blatantly call it as such, whatever the coroner’s report says. The theory does state that the hormonal treatment Alan was undergoing, his chemical castration, might have increased his confusion and lead to him making the error, however. So I still see him as a victim of the prejudices of his time.

I loved this film. Yes it is dramatised and sentimentalised, but it captures the essence of both Alan and Joan’s stories, in one simple phrase.

“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.”

How would these two people have changed the world even more, even further, if they hadn’t been reduced in the eyes of their peers to their sexuality and gender? What leaps might this world have made if they had been allowed to stretch and challenge themselves, unimpeded, for the whole of their natural lives and to the limits of their outstanding intellects and thirst for learning and experimentation?

If anyone ever asks me again why Equality and Diversity are important issues still in this world, this film will be on my prescribed ‘Watch This’ list. If anyone ever asks me why feminism is important, or why campaigning for equal rights for the LGBT* community is important, I will show them this film.

Under extreme pressure, with a narrow brief, working in huts, during a war time filled with deprivation, fear, danger and hunger – these two scientists, who nobody imagined very much of, changed the world. What more might they have accomplished if they had been supported and truly allowed to accomplish the things which no one else could imagine?

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