There are many stories surrounding World War II that are beyond fascinating, but few reach the level of intrigue that Alan Turing’s does. The British mathematician is essentially responsible for inventing the computer, and was a Cambridge fellow by the time he was in his mid-twenties. The man was a genius not just at math, but in cryptology, the study of codes and symbols. That’s why the British government recruited him to crack Enigma, the ever-elusive German messaging system. The code was said to be unbreakable, because the encryption changed every single day. Decode one day’s message, and it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow you have to start all over again. What’s even more noteworthy is that Turing’s part in this grand project was a government secret for over 50 years.
So it’s an interesting story. No argument there. But what the film undertakes is more than just a war drama about codes. That is the crux of the story, but it’s not the focus of the drama. The film opens with Turing as the focus of a police investigation after the war. As part of that investigation, Turing tells his story, leaving the police detective, and implicitly, the audience, to judge exactly what he is.
From the first glimpses we get of Alan Turing’s socially awkwardness and eccentricities, it’s clear why the film was Oscar-nominated. Benedict Cumberbatch handles the character with such convincing poise that it’s hard to not get sucked into his performance. Keira Knightley shows us a realistic portrait of the sexism women had to endure during the time period. Mark Strong is a clever and convincing MI-6 agent. But at its heart, this isn’t really a war movie.
Turing is brilliant, there’s no doubting that. The importance of his actions in winning the war can hardly be overstated. But that’s not the film’s point, really. It’s drawing on another aspect of Turing’s persona, namely his homosexuality.
Turing lived at a time when being a homosexual was illegal. It was termed ‘indecency’ in the United Kingdom, and came with jail time. The accusation of homosexuality would ruin a man’s life, rendering him unable to get a job or obtain any semblance of societal respect. And that’s exactly what happened to Alan Turing (some spoilers are ahead).
This is highlighted especially emphatically when it comes to the film’s closing. Going back to the initial moments of the film, Turing is part of a police investigation. The investigation is into allegations of indecency, that Alan Turing is a homosexual. And as Turing’s interrogation with the police detective comes to a close, he submits that differences in taste are part of being human, to show that we all think differently. The specific context of the conversation is how computers and humans think differently, but the undertone meaning of his statement is clear: homosexuals are simply people with different tastes. It makes them different, but not immoral. Afterward it shows Turing back at home, physically shaking and emotionally disturbed. He has taken court-mandated hormonal therapy in order to escape jail time. According to the film, he committed suicide one year later.
That sets up an inevitable conflict for the Christian viewing this film. On the one hand, homosexuality is identified as a sin by God (Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9). That is unequivocally the case. But the same God that calls us to expose the deeds of darkness also calls us to look on sinners with compassion and grace, to point them to the cross rather than treating them poorly. The double standard inherent in the oppressive worldview is found in the film as well, as Hugh reveals himself to be a perverted womanizer, and able to talk about that openly with his friends. If homosexuality is wrong because it is immoral, why is Hugh’s immorality not frowned upon? Those are fair objections and fair questions.
So then, I am left to conclude that Alan Turing was a war hero who was flawed morally, though I must balance that with the acknowledgement that God does not rank sin. I cannot call my immorality less significant than his. So I then can join with those who lament over how Turing was treated, even if I disagree with their conclusions about how the activity should be viewed. For if it is sin, it cannot simply be “taste.”
But that’s not the end of the discussion. The end of the film presents some potentially troubling ideas, ideas that don’t actually line up with the historical Alan Turing. Because contrary to the way the end of Turing’s life is presented, Alan Turing probably didn’t actually commit suicide. In fact, while his death was declared suicide at the time, evidence since has suggested that the conclusion of suicide is not supportable. The cause of his death was cyanide inhalation, and a half-eaten apple was found next to his bed. But the police didn’t test the apple for cyanide, and Turing expert Jack Copeland says he would commonly eat an apple before bed, and he commonly neglected to finish it. What’s more is that Turing worked with cyanide in his home (which is also referred to in the beginning of the film).
Additionally, the hormone treatments had not, as the film suggests, left him in emotional disarray. The accounts of those close to him say he took it in good humor, and his close friend Robin Gandy, who stayed with him the weekend before he died, said he “seemed, if anything, happier than usual” (all this and more can be found at this link).
I don’t say this to justify the hormonal treatments. As I hope I’ve made clear in this review, the appropriate way to approach sinners is with mercy and compassion to tell them the gospel, not to mandate hormonal treatments. But this is significant in that the film is telling a story that is noticeably different than what probably actually happened. It does have an angle to take, and it does have a side. That side is one that highlights the suffering of homosexuals at the hands of moral elitists, and proposes, in response, that homosexuals are simply people that have different tastes.
Can a Christian watch this film and appreciate it for Turing’s mathematical genius and bravery in a time of war? Absolutely. Can a Christian avoid the film because of its undertones and be completely justified in doing so? Absolutely. But the thing to keep in mind for those who choose to approach this film is that it might be an intriguing, well-done take on Turing’s story, but it is not one without its own agenda, and must be, at the very least, approached with a great deal of caution.