Bright Lights Film Journal

Alan Turing, 1912-1954, 2009


Since we’re commemorating dire events today, here’s one from queer history worth noting. From today’s Guardian website:

Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal apology last night on behalf of the government to Alan Turing, the second world war codebreaker who took his own life 55 years ago after being sentenced to chemical castration for being gay.

Describing Turing’s treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”, Brown said the country owed the brilliant mathematician a huge debt. He was proud, he said, to offer an official apology. “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better,” Brown writes in a statement posted on the No 10 website.

Turing is most famous for his work in helping create the “bombe” that cracked messages enciphered with the German Enigma machines. He was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 after admitting a sexual relationship with a man.

Below is a review I wrote of Breaking the Code, the 1997 BBC film of Turing’s life starring Derek Jacobi. Previously released only on VHS, maybe renewed interest in Turing will get us a DVD.

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Alan Turing was one of those gifted homosexuals all too common in queer history — a brilliant mathematician who did pioneering work on early computers and helped make England safe for heterosexuals by cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II. In return, this unapologetic “nancy boy,” as his shocked mother calls him, was harassed, robbed, arrested, hospitalized, and forced to take estrogen as a condition of being probated rather than jailed. The surprisingly athletic Turing (he held records in marathon running) developed breasts from this bizarre treatment and eventually fell into a depression. His death in 1954 at age 42 is believed to be a suicide, from a strychnine-laced apple, though some think it may have been an experiment gone wrong.

The 1997 film Breaking the Code, the Masterpiece Theatre version of Turing’s life, gives equal time to Turing’s passionate intellectual curiosity and his pursuit of homosexual pleasure. The film, adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his play (which was based on Andrew Hodges’ biography), structures the story around flashbacks and flash-forwards, an apt metaphor for the kind of psychic dissonance Turing must have suffered in trying to be as free in his personal life as in his scientific pursuits at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain.

An early scene (1929) brings together Turing’s dueling obsessions in the person of Christopher (Blake Ritson), a handsome, equally science-minded schoolmate who visits his friend for the weekend. Christopher’s wide-eyed description of seeing one of Jupiter’s moons through his telescope amounts to a verbal caress, which Turing longs to return. “I wish we could live here together, just you and I . . . wouldn’t that be wonderful?” The soundtrack here takes an acceptable liberty, superimposing the endearingly kitschy “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White (actually released eight years later). The poison apple that killed Turing more ominously echoes Snow White.

The film shifts quickly from here to 1952, when an adult Turing (Derek Jacobi) picks up a decidedly less innocent version of his “prince” — an unemployed piece of trade named Ron Miller (Julian Kerridge). Their relationship, clearly economic on Miller’s part, triggers Turing’s downfall when the prince becomes a thief and an angry Turing turns him into the police, who instead arrest the older man for sodomy.

Between Turing’s early schoolboy romance and his downfall at the hands of the British authorities, the film shows fascinating glimpses of his work life. He’s inducted into Bletchley Park’s coterie of code-breakers, among them Patricia Green (Amanda Root) and head cryptanalyst Knox (Richard Johnson). Green is aware of Turing’s homosexuality but falls in love with him anyway. The pragmatic Knox tells Turing he doesn’t care personally “if you go to bed with choir boys or cocker spaniels,” but urges restraint for the sake of the project — breaking the Germans’ heavily coded transmissions.

Turing’s dislike of protocol extends to his work. Frustrated by the lack of funding, he appeals directly to Winston Churchill, who orders that Bletchley be supplied with every resource it needs. Turing’s success helped end the war, but typically that wasn’t enough to save him from Britain’s antiquated sodomy laws, which arguably destroyed him.

While Breaking the Code has some of the uncomfortable insularity of its origins as a stage play, it’s redeemed by consistently strong performances. True to Masterpiece Theater standards, the film treats Turing’s actual love life with “tasteful” discretion – mirroring contemporary views of the homosexual body as something that must be hidden and arguably feeding the same kind of homophobia that was Turing’s undoing. Nonetheless, Derek Jacobi makes the character’s passions come alive in spite of the absence of who he really was, sexually speaking.