How do you make a film about the meticulously slow, solitary work of breaking codes entertaining? That’s the question that drags at the heels of The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the man who invented the machine that broke the enigma code, which is largely credited for the victory of the allies over Germany in the Second World War, and was ostensibly the first ever computer. Michael Apted’s 2001 film, Enigma (based on a novel by Robert Harris) attempted (and failed) to do this by turning the story of the Bletchley Park code-breakers into a spy thriller and replacing Turing, an antisocial gay genius, with a dashing heterosexual hero who gets involved in all sorts of contrived wartime intrigue.
The truth is that Turing and his colleagues spent the entire war sequestered from intrigue and violence, painstakingly creating a machine that would break codes used by the Germans to communicate strategies of attack. Once the machine was invented, they all continued to live at Bletchley, determining which attacks to scupper or not, so that the Germans wouldn’t cop on to the fact that their radio communications were being decoded.
The drama in Graham Moore’s screenplay for The Imitation Game is smaller than that of Enigma, focusing at first on conflict between the socially inept Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his debonair competitor at Bletchley, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and then with his suspicious superior, Commander Denniston (played with a suitably gimlet eye by Charles Dance). Turing wants to build his machine, his nemeses, one after the other, want to stop him. There’s not much else in the way of conflict on show, bar a failed romance with a bright colleague, Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) and a particularly muted run-in with the police later in Turing’s life, which is both the horrific heart of this film, and a wasted opportunity.
Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK, and rather than go to prison for two years he accepted chemical castration. This fact is tacked on to the end of the film, which is bookended with a star-crossed teenage romance during Turing’s prep school days, and while the injustice is palpable, the idea of Turing as a persecuted gay man is not. There’s the briefest suggestion that the British government might have had a hand in his demise, but it’s never explored. Rather than even hint at Turing’s adult homosexual relationships, his final scenes involve a deepening of his quasi-heterosexual romance with a simpering (as always) Ciara Knightley, not to mention a fetishised relationship with his machine, which is called Christopher after the object of his childhood affection. There is literally no fleshing out.
Having said all this, the performance at the centre of The Imitation Game makes it soar above the film’s own limitations, self-imposed or not. Benedict Cumberbatch’s deeply expressive face is almost always in close-up throughout the proceedings, and that face embodies a character that you feel for at every turn, even when Morten Tyldum’s direction is clunky, or we’re being fed lots of obvious exposition, or Kiera Knightley is talking through her teeth. Indeed, without Cumberbatch, this film would be nothing worth writing home about.
In the closing credits we learn that Queen Elizabeth II gave Turing a posthumous royal pardon in 2013, which of course was too little too late, given the man’s contribution to winning the war and the millions of lives saved by his machine. It’s also a case of too little to late with this film, which could have really explored the deep injustice meted out against Turing, and what it meant to him as an emotional, sexual adult. As such, while celebrating Turing’s achievements, The Imitation Game castrates him again.
THE FIRST PERSON DILEMMA
The poet and novelist Mary Dorcey was chatting to me today about writing in the first person, as opposed to the third person. She said, ‘Writing in the third person, you get width. Writing in the first person, you sacrifice width for intensity.”
It’s true. My first novels, the published and unpublished ones, were all in the third person. They were all ensemble novels, with groups of characters, so it made sense to tell their stories from the outside looking in (third person), rather than from the inside looking out (first person).
I wanted to do something different with my new book, to challenge myself and tell story in a new (for me) way, so I’ve chosen a first person narrative. This comes with a set of problems, not least of which is that I can’t reveal the inner workings or points of view of the other characters in the book. They all have to be filtered through my narrator.
Part of me is scared that by writing in the first person, I might not have enough story to stretch over 100,000 compelling words. But then I think of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, which is a first person narrative stretched over 771 mostly compelling pages (dare I break with the critical cabal and say that it got annoyingly repetitive in the endless middle section?), and I think I can maybe stretch to 400. I certainly have a strong concept with plenty of conflict to keep it rolling along.
What I’m loving about writing in the first person is how I’m getting to know my narrator, Michael Ryan, so quickly. With the other books, it wasn’t really until I was writing the final chapters that I fell in love with my gangs of third-person characters. I’d done all the character work (more of which later, I promise!), I knew their likes, dislikes, contradictions, paradoxes and what they had in their fridges, but it took a long time of writing them from the outside looking in to make me really get under their skins.
Writing in the first person, you are under you character’s skin from the outset. In a way that character is you, and you are him, or her. Michael Ryan is nothing like me, but he is me, and I am him. I’m liking the process of revealing him, to myself, and the world.
If you haven’t read Mary Dorcey, you should. She’s up there with Colm Toíbín and Emma Donoghue as one of Ireland’s foremost LGBT writers.
Write What You Know
Before I started this book, I was writing another one. I’d got about 20,000 words in when I admitted to myself it wasn’t working. My publisher liked the idea, and my editor was encouraging, but I found myself putting off writing it even more than usual. It was the story of a two sisters and a brother in crisis, after a sibling they never knew about turns up out of the blue, revealing a secret history of their now-deceased, beloved mother. A good idea, but no matter how I tried to make myself excited about it, I couldn’t.
My previous two books are also ensemble novels – telling the stories of groups of people, with one of them getting more chapters than the others, thereby becoming the main protagonist. The characters in them were nothing like me, and came entirely from my imagination, as were the sisters and brothers of my untitled book. I didn’t follow the ‘write what you know’ advice often given to first time writers. Instead I wrote what I didn’t know, and it worked.
But this time, when I decided to give up the manuscript I was working on, I came to the conclusion that it is time to write what I know. Perhaps I wasn’t doing it because I was afraid of delving into myself too much, afraid that what I knew wasn’t enough to flesh out a whole story over 100,000 words.
During radio, television and print interviews for my second book, Knowing Me Knowing You, I was repeatedly asked about being a gay father, to tell the story of how I had my son, my relationship with his mother, how I came out to him, and other details. There were no stories about gay parenthood in the book, and I was uncomfortable about the interviews. I wanted to talk about the book, not me.
When I discarded the 20K words I’d already written, I was casting around for an idea, getting freaked out because I had nothing to work on. I met my editor for coffee and she said to me, what about being a gay dad. You know about that, and maybe it will bring something new to the table if you explore it.
That night I woke at 3am out of a dream and the idea for this book, perfectly rounded, with a beginning middle and end, came to me. So, I’m writing about what I know, and even if it’s as hard as writing any other book, I’m sure I’m on the right track.
All was not lost with the first attempt. I’ve been able to salvage some of the character work I did in advance of writing (I’ll talk about this in a later blog entry), to flesh out the supporting cast for my pair of gay dads, negotiating parenthood in a world that doesn’t fully understand them. I know all about that.
I thought I knew a fair bit about the media industry. After all, I’ve been magazine editing for 13 years now, and I know a good story when I see one. Over those years I’ve often been asked to go on TV, radio and in print to talk about gay rights issues, and the one proviso I always gave was that I don’t talk about my personal life. The reason for this is I have a son, and I felt a responsibility to keep his life out of it, since he had no choice in the matter.
My son’s grown up now, and he lives abroad, plus he’s totally comfortable with me talking about him, so when The John Murray Show on RTE Radio One asked me to come on and talk about my new novel, Knowing Me Knowing You, and at the same time tell the nation what it’s like being a gay dad, how it all happened, and what my relationships with my son and his mother were like, I said yes. I was reluctant – my book is mainstream commercial fiction featuring heterosexual characters, and no gay dads, but i understand that personal stories are interesting to listeners, and I felt ready to tell my story.
The show was broadcast on Monday, and right after it the RTE press office contacted me to say The Daily Mirror were interested in running a story, based on the interview. Then The Irish Sun called me and said they’d like to run a story too. I said yes, although again with trepidation. There was little I could do about it – my interview was public property. I asked both the Mirror and The Sun to print a photo of my book cover with their pieces and left them to it.
The stories appeared yesterday. The copy stuck to the tone of my interview, which was an honest account of how I came to have a child, the process of coming out as gay, how my child’s mother took the news, and how we have managed to bring our son up together but apart, the very best we could.
But the headlines were a different story.
‘I TOLD HER I WAS GAY BUT WE HAD A BABY ANYWAY’ shouted The Mirror.
‘GAY DAD PACT HIS BAGS DAY SON TURNED 1’ said The Sun – http://tinyurl.com/c7c2kz8
I know a headline is there to make a reader read the story, but still I was shocked at the negative slant in the headlines about my own life. They don’t reflect the truth of the story at all, and there’s a kind of homophobia to them, a suggestion of irresponsibility coupled with the word ‘gay’ that, for all my knowledge of the tabloid papers and their sexually prurient slant, I was not expecting. I guess, when it’s your life, you can’t imagine it framed in any other way.
God only knows what it must be like to be famous and see this kind of stuff every day!
Anyway, my publishers are delighted. Both papers printed the book’s cover so it should help sales. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, folks?