Cinematic shorthand for genius: Benedict Cumberbatch and Autism?

If you want to give your parents hope that you’re a misunderstood genius, begin separating your peas from your carrots. Instead of minding your p’s and q’s, this might get you a pass into polite society of people hoping to be able to say they knew you when you were misunderstood and unknown genius. It helps if you look like Benedict Cumberbatch.

Besides playing Smaug, perhaps the sexiest thing in the Hobbit (if it weren’t for the inclusion of Orlando Bloom who should be there at all), Cumberbatch has played the young, “high-functioning sociopath” (yes, I know that Holmes is neither a psychopath or a sociopath and they are the same thing) in the British TV series that brings Conan Doyle’s creation to contemporary times in “Sherlock.”  Cumberbatch also portrayed  Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate” as a bit off due to a childhood in a cult and heavily bleached white hair. He got to play Khan Noonien Singh and thus the number of ethnic Asians in the Star Trek canon decreased by one very significant villain.

Now he plays the British mathematician Alan Turing as socially awkward, a bit compulsive (separating his peas and carrots marks him as odd at his boarding school) and obtuse in understanding social exchanges in the historical drama “The Imitation Game.” Doyle never introduced us to Sherlock Holmes’ parents so we could wonder about his odd upbringing and never get a telling reveal into his psyche and motivations. In Graham Moore’s script, Turing exists outside of the sphere of family and becomes something of another Anglo Superman.

Graham Moore has written a script that essentially calls for Cumberbatch to play a sexless, less aggressive World War II version of his Sherlock and Cumberbatch ably obliges. We don’t have any of the witty zingers and the bewildered Watson is off playing a hobbit, so we only have Keira Knightly as a foil.

Director Morten Tyldum had last helmed a 2011 Norwegian comedy action thriller “Headhunters,” which I haven’t seen. “Headhunters” was the highest-grossing Norwegian film of all time, but this film is sadly lack in humor. Both Tyldum and Moore fail to capture the character of Turing and the collaborative nature of his most famous work and, indeed, the collaborative nature of many scientific endeavors.

The movie opens with an investigation. A middle-aged Turing (Cumberbatch) has his apartment burgled and hesitates to report it. This puzzles Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) who comes upon something even more curious–Turing’s wartime service records are empty. Turing takes command of the situation, telling the Nock that he must listen and listen carefully to this tale and reveals via flashback Turing’s wartime service. What’s problematic is just how those flashbacks to his teen years at a boarding school within the flashbacks to his time at Bletchley Park work into Turing’s narration to Nock.

In chronological order, Turing (Alex Lawther)  is bullied at boarding school because he separates his carrots and peas. We never seen his older brother John who was likely also at boarding school if not the very same one. Turing is also put under the floorboards and rescued by and upperclass boy, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon), who becomes his best friend and later introduces him to cryptology. Turing clearly adores Christopher and means to tell him he loves him, but Christopher fails to return to school after vacation and the headmaster summons Turing into his office and breaks the news of Christopher’s death. Turing denies even knowing Christopher.

Fast forward to the outbreak of war and Turing arrogantly informs the military that they need him and they do. Turing has deduced that the military has a secret project: Enigma. Enigma is the German coding device and the British are eager to decode. Turing joins a team under British chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and a few German linguists at the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Being a loner, Turing works by himself and eventually goes over Alexander’s head becomes the leader of a team who works on this huge contraption that Turing calls Christopher. Turing also innovates in his recruiting efforts by testing people with a crossword puzzle and that brings Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) into his life. Clarke has problems getting permission from her parents and it is there concern about her being away and working with men that eventually leads Turing to propose marriage to her, even though he eventually admits his homosexuality.

Christopher does eventually work, but how well, they can’t reveal and must decide how to keep the news from the German, even if it means sacrificing the lives of some soldiers, including the brother of one of the linguists.

Not all of what happened was true although much of it is. Most problematic for me is the portrayal of Turing as somewhat autistic and that he alone had the vision to innovate and he alone had the courage to go above the military authority.

According to a article, “The Imitation Game,” doesn’t only forget to give Polish cryptoanalysts credit for the first version of the decryption machine, the movie also fails to credit mathematician Gordon Welchman who is not mentioned at all. The script’s cursory nod to the Polish cryptologists is to mention that the Polish group managed to steal a copy of the Enigma machine, not that they had developed the first bombe (bomba kryptologiczna) or decoding machine.

Polish Cipher Bureau cryptologist Marian Rejewski designed the machine in 1938. Rejewski and his colleagues presented their results on the Enigma decryption to the French and British intelligence five weeks before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Bletchley Park was set up in 1938.

*Polish and Jews and the creation of the computer

Rejeweski and other Polish cryptologists fled to France and would eventually end up in Britain after traveling through Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar.  Yet for whatever reason, in Britain, Rejewski wasn’t allowed to work on the Enigma decryption.

While the movie implies that Turing was autistic or suffered from Aspergers Syndrome or autism and unable to understand jokes and implied meanings, according to, his biographer Andrew Hodges (“Alan Turing: The Enigma”) describes him as having a good sense of humor and close friends as opposed to no friends except Clarke which is Turing in “The Imitation Game.”

Captain Jerry Roberts who worked with him at Bletchley Park describes Turing as of “middle height, clean shaven” and he was “dressed in a somewhat untidy, brown sports jacket, and rather baggy grey trousers. He was not your typical Achilles figure, not a warrior king this man.” Robert, who “had not contact with him directly” found him modest and quiet.

Mike Woodger who worked closely with Turing post-World War II as an assistant at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, found Turing as impatient, but a “very pleasant companion.”  Woodger described him kind and “a real gentleman” who was generous with is praise. also asserts that Turing did know German and had traveled to Germany before and would do so again after the war.

Turing didn’t name his machine Christopher.

Both the family of Alastair Denniston and Hodges were unhappy with the historical inaccuracies as related in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian. The script augments the isolation of Turing by portraying Hugh Alexander (Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander) as being confrontational and although Turing begins as an underling of Alexander, he ultimately becomes the team leader. This is contrary to the fact. At Bletchley Park, Turing and Alexander were initially on different teams and Alexander was later transferred to Turing’s team. Alexander proved to be a better organizer and their relationship was friendly and respectful.

When Turing was on trial, although he wrote a letter to Joan Clarke, it was Alexander who came and served as a character witness during the trial. In the movie, we don’t see the trial nor do we see Alexander after the war years. We do see Clarke visiting Turing post-trial when he is sickly and much thinner because of the chemical castration (which according to historical accounts actually left him plumper with breasts).

While Turing did live alone at the time of his death, he was not without family or a maid. His mother and older brother were still alive. We never see them in “The Imitation Game.” You wouldn’t even know that they existed from this movie. Instead of seeing the camaraderie and collaboration of Bletchley Park (as we can see on the TV series Bletchley Park on Netflix) and the humorous man who was able to read and expand upon the works of another (Polish) genius and work together with a colleague or colleagues and the excitement of that collaboration as well as potential geek math and chess jokes and rivalries (Turing and Clarke also played chess), we see an Anglo Superman whose kryptonite is his homosexuality and the gross indecency of British law. We have a milder version of Sherlock Holmes leading lesser men at Bletchley Park instead of Baker Street.

What Turing did changed the world, but he didn’t do it alone.

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