After weeks of buzz, Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
finally hit cinemas last week (November 14), and it's certainly living up to its early critical acclaim. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the closeted WWII code-breaker and Keira Knightley as his real life fiancé Joan Clarke, the film is a fascinating insight into the life of an - until recently - unsung hero who was ultimately betrayed by the country he helped to save.
Those familiar with Turing's story will know that he eventually committed suicide in 1954, two years after being prosecuted for homosexual acts and receiving a series of oestrogen injections that effectively amounted to a chemical castration. Now, in an attitude.co.uk
exclusive, we've spoken to Cumberbatch himself, to get his take on Turing's life and the challenges of playing this complex and tragic hero.
If you're yet to see the film and want to find out more before you read on, why not read our review here
, or click here to watch the trailer
So tell us Benedict, did this role get an instant ‘Yes’ from you?
“YES! It was the only script I’ve ever ‘tracked’ – that Hollywood expression for monitoring something that’s lost in the hinterland of redevelopment. I heard about the script, because someone had mentioned it to me, saying, ‘You’d be great for that role.’ Hollywood’s blacklist scripts are always noted because they are brilliant, but haven’t, for some reason, gone into production. Warner’s moved away from it and it became free again, and Teddy [Schwartzman] bought it. Ida [Ostrowsky] and Nora [Grossman] and I met, and I said, ‘I really want to do this,’ and they really wanted me to do it.
How important is it to tell Alan Turing’s story?
“I think it was really important to tell this story. I think Graham [Moore]’s great sleight of hand with this magnificent film is that it’s not a lumpy moment-by-moment biopic.
“You discover Alan at the height of his powers at Bletchley Park, and you don’t really know who he is, but you’re slightly intrigued by him, endeared by him, bemused by him, frustrated by him… You realise that there’s some spark of brilliance in him. It's surprising how little known he is. We know some of the headlines; or we, in England, know some of the headlines because it part of our history. But I think most people would agree there's a massive disparity between his achievements and how much his story is known.
“I hope it entertains, amuses, thrills, terrifies, and upsets people, but ultimately I really hope it brings Alan Turing to a much wider audience. That's what’s so important, because he’s a war hero, a gay icon, and the father of the computer age. It’s an incredible amount to achieve in 41 years.”
What lessons should we take from it?
“We should learn to celebrate our differences and seek out our similarities rather than create divisive fear. He’s a man who committed suicide because he was persecuted for his sexuality by the very democracy and government that he saved. It’s a sickening irony and the unbearable tragedy of this story.
“The film also teaches us about what it is to be human and to love. It also shows us people being in service to governments and secrets. It's about the continuing resonance of communication, and how important words are, how important it is to understand people and break down what the differences are between us, through dialogue, through any form of codified communication. It’s about a way of understanding, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a secret code or common English.”
How important do you think Turing’s affection for [school friend] Christopher Morcom was in shaping him?
“This affair that he had, although unconsummated, was a beautiful love story. It’s heart-breaking and doubly tragic because Christopher gave him the self-confidence to love and be a part of something outside of himself, and that object was then destroyed by this cruel disease - bovine tuberculosis. The level of tragedy in that happening at such a formative moment I find heart-breaking in itself, but then to know what follows... It's amazing that as with all adversity in his life he used it for the positive.
“In those letters to Christopher’s grieving mother, Alan’s agnosticism forms and crystallises. He writes he doesn't believe in a soul or spirit, but that he could keep Christopher’s legacy alive, by working as hard as he could to be as good as him, and to better himself because Christopher was better than him. That was where this singular work ethic was born in him. That’s what got him into Cambridge. That’s what brought this mind to the world. This tragic loss in his youth gave the world Alan Turing.”
Was it a difficult part to take on?
“Um... In some ways the importance of getting it right for Alan was difficult, as it should be. But I had a great team. They were a great group who were all on board for all the right reasons. They did so much of the heavily lifting, and Graham's script was such a delight that a lot of the film felt incredibly natural. Rehearsals with the blissful and extremely talented cast helped hugely too. So, yes, it was a difficult role made easy by my co-workers I guess! The hardest aspect was the responsibility of getting it right for Alan's legacy.”
How was it to finally get on set and actually start playing him?
“It was a relief after all the prep to finally start committing choices to film. It's always nerve wracking that first day as you establish so much. But in a way it's always best just to trust the work is there, jump with both feet into the unknown and see what happens. By the end of my time playing Alan I knew I'd miss him; not least because of his tragic, untimely death but also because of the joy of playing such a multifaceted, unique and subtle character as he was.”
He was an athlete, too, wasn’t he?
“Yes, and at a competitive level. He was an Olympic-level athlete. His time for the London marathon would have put him in the top 15 last year, I think. He really was that good. We portray it as his meditation and pressure valve. His physical life is so curtailed and observed and repressed at Bletchley (a 'sexual desert' as he described it) that running seemed to be a much needed escape. So the effect of the drug was, I think, amplified emotionally by both facets of his physical life being lost. There’s a tiny detail in the research that I put in: there’s a slight limp that he’s got because the guy giving him oestrogen injections got a little bit embarrassed about it and said, ‘Why don’t I give you a slow release device? We’ll put it in your hip, and Bob’s your uncle, we’ll never have to see you again.’ Alan agreed to it. The problem was that it kept releasing after the two year sentence was up. It was triggered by his metabolism, so when he ate, that was when the oestrogen flooded his system.
“So the limp – Alan had this slow release device and he took a carving knife from his kitchen and tried to cut it out of his hip. He probably severed nerves, in trying to get to it, that would mean he would never be able to run again or certainly not at the same level. The compounding nature of that punishment is so catastrophic. He was one of hundreds of thousands of men who went through this. That’s the other really important thing to bear in mind in this personal tragedy. He symbolises what happened to many. It’s horrific.”
What do you think Alan Turing have gone on to achieve, had his life not been cut short?
“Alan was 41 in 1952. Let’s say that he might have lived until 80 or 90, because he was quite healthy and fit. Can you imagine what he might have achieved? The birth of the internet probably would have been sped up. Some say that his early work at Cambridge was his best work. It's hard to say as so much happened to him to debilitate his work in the later years. Who knows what a tolerant, permissive society, that celebrated him as someone who was different rather than punishing him for it, would have fostered in him? He was a unique human being and a unique contribution to our world. Who knows?”
Would you agree that Joan Clarke is another unsung hero in this story?
“Absolutely. She deserves her own film. Keira is wonderful as Joan. A woman looking for a place at the table and equal pay, asking to be judged on her merits rather than her sex. Brilliant as she was and entitled to that as she was it was a battle. I think Keira shows how she had to navigate the institutionalised sexism with kindness effortlessly.
“Alan’s relationship with her is central to the film. It's a relationship that I completely buy. Not just because of the convention of gay men having to have a cover, but also because they obviously desperately loved each other due to the common ground they shared. They were allies in the struggle for equality and meritocracy. Being a woman who was that intelligent, with the sexism that we characterise in the film, was a huge obstacle for her. ‘You’re not supposed to have this standing in a man’s world’ – Alan saw through all of that shit as an outsider and was very much for equality. I think they both loved each other in a very deep, profound but platonic way. They had an understanding of one another. They were both fighting prejudice and had an intellectual and spiritual complicity in their life and their work.”
The Imitation Game is in cinemas now.
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