The Imitation Game's False Ending
The film wants to conclude happily, but downplaying Alan Turing's tragic demise does a disservice to his legacy.
(Spoiler alert, or as much of a spoiler alert as you can give a film about a public figure with a well-documented personal history.)
After being arrested and tried for committing homosexual acts—a crime in 1950s Britain—the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) undergoes court-mandated hormone therapy to "cure" him of his homosexuality. Visited by his former friend and fiancée Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Turing confesses he chose the therapy that made him incredibly ill over going to prison so he could continue working on his computer, Christopher (named for his childhood love). He realizes she's getting married, and laments he wasn't "normal" enough for her. Her reply:
This morning I took a train through a city that would not exist if it wasn't for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn't for you. I read up on my work, a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you. If you wish you could have been 'normal,' I can promise you, I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren't.
She leaves, and he finds solace with his computer—the computer that wasn't actually named Christopher. And then, the audience is told by subtitles, Turing dies off-screen. Suicide by cyanide apple poisoning.
It's a jarring juxtaposition: Joan's final monologue is clearly meant to leave the audience with a message of hope, only to immediately undercut it with a punch to the gut. It's the main problem that plagues The Imitation Game, a finely crafted film boasting strong performances that, for some reason, is determined to find a happy ending where none exists.
As The A.V. Club's Myles McNutt pointed out on Twitter, there's a sizable amount of evidence that awards-magnet producer Harvey Weinstein influenced The Imitation Game before and after he picked it up. Weinstein even told Deadline in February he was "worried about [the script's] tone" before he bought the distribution rights to the film. In said article, reporter Mike Fleming Jr. even noted the connection between The Imitation Game and fellow Weinstein property and Best Picture Oscar winner The King's Speech: They're both World War II biopics about an "abnormal" man overcoming his differences.
But whereas The King's Speech's tone of triumph is earned and organic, The Imitation Game has to gloss over a lot of hardship—and not just Turing's suicide. Take the film's depiction of Turing's hormone therapy: While Cumberbatch does an admirable job expressing a basic understanding of Turing's suffering, he can only do so much. As the therapy made Turing ill, he began to suffer from gynecomastia—literally, growing breasts—and grew deformed in ways that caused him to remark in a letter that he would be "a different man" once it was over. Turing's government didn't just make him a bit sick; he was ruined and driven to the point of suicide.
In truth, the suicide is really most troublesome aspect, largely because of why it was relegated to epilogue text. In an interview with Vulture, screenwriter Graham Moore described a post-suicide scene that was cut:
... you see Alan Turing’s body, blurry in the foreground, as he lies dead on the bed, and there’s an apple with a bite taken out of it on the nightstand. As a writer, I was obsessed with the idea that this should be the last scene, but when we first saw it in the assembly cut, it fell really flat. ... We’d had this idea that we would end on the shot of the apple with the bite taken out of it, but when we saw it that way, we all laughed. The movie suddenly looked like an Apple commercial! It was instantly goofy, so we cut it.
Yes, the apple scene sounds like an equal or greater misfire. But were those truly the only two options? If Moore was so fixated, why did director Morten Tyldum not work with him to brainstorm other ideas? Moore added that the creative team decided to end with Joan's monologue because it was "a much more lovely way to end things that was very much in the spirit of the film," and that the suicide was too much like "reciting biographic information." So, of course, the solution is on-screen text reciting biographic information.
To me, the decision to not show the suicide feels like a cop-out. Were it to be included, the film would be darker (perhaps not the "tone" Harvey Weinstein was going for) but that's not bad. Alan Turing lived a dark life, largely because he was persecuted for being different. To end on Joan Clarke telling him "the world is an infinitely better place" because of said differences is indeed "lovely," but movies don't have to have pleasant endings. Many lives don't end in a "lovely" way—Turing's certainly didn't.
There are several other issues with the film's representation of true events—The New York Review of Books put together a great rundown—but every biopic is inevitably going to take liberties. That's not the issue. The problem is that the most prominent biopic the world has about a genius and pioneer glosses over much of his greatest hardship, all for a few Oscar nominations and a more traditionally "inspiring" story. Why can't a story about a brilliant gay man who died too young because he was practically destroyed by his own country be enough? Why not emphasize the tragedy of the narrative to make the audience passionate about human rights not just then, but now?
There's a tenet in film criticism to not remark upon the work you wish you saw, but to focus on the movie in front of you. It's mostly a good rule of thumb; following it in this case, I'd say the team behind The Imitation Game made a decent-to-good piece of cinema. But in setting out to tell the story of Alan Turing's life, Tyldum, Moore, et al. took on the extra responsibility of his legacy—and they failed him.