If The Imitation Game -- a new movie about Turing's life -- has it right, Turing was an intensely focused man with limited social skills and no idea about how his behavior effected others. He wasn't mean. He was simply oblivious to the demands of almost any social situation.
Played with brilliant eccentricity by Benedict Cumberbatch (expect an Oscar nomination), Turing isn't exactly an inspirational figure. He often displays the kind of insistence that would drive most of us crazy.
The movie's psychology is handled in sketchy fashion. Turing, we learn in one of the movie's many flashbacks, carried a sense of abiding grief from the loss of a childhood love, an older schoolmate on whom he had a crush.
Clearly, we're meant to see Turing as an unrecognized groundbreaker whose life ultimately was destroyed by the British legal system. Turing's work went unacknowledged until the 1950s, and he suffered at the hands of cruelly archaic British laws regarding homosexuality.
Director Morten Tyldum does his most interesting work in Bletchley Park, the estate where Turing developed his so-called Universal Machine. Turing was certain that this early computer would be better at cryptography than any human, a view not shared by all his colleagues.
Turing's principal adversary turns up in the form of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), an army officer who runs Bletchley with a spit-and-polish attitude that's ill-suited to supervising a bunch of chess-playing mathematicians.
In what the movie treats as an emotional turning point, co-worker Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) rallies support for Turing, who's on the verge of losing his position. Until then, Alexander hadn't been much of a Turing fan.
Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a math whiz recruited by Turing for his project. He proposed to her as a matter of convenience, although the movie makes it clear that Turing had real feelings for her, and she for him.
The Imitation Game has been criticized for taking a middlebrow approach to its source material, Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography about Turing. Some have criticized the movie because Turing's homosexuality is more alluded to than shown.
Fair comments, I suppose, but there are interesting ethical implications in the story.
If knowledge of the broken code had been overused, the Germans would have known that the code had been cracked. As a result, information obtained from code-breaking was employed sparingly.
Sacrifices were made so that the information obtained from the Germans could be put to maximum use.
Tyldum, mistakenly I think, sets the story against an awkwardly employed framing device in which a police inspector (Rory Kinnear) questions Turing after his arrest. The misguided detective is trying to determine whether Turing spied for the Russians.
Because of his homosexuality, Turing was found guilty of "gross indecency." He submitted to hormone therapy as an alternative to prison. He committed suicide a couple of years later. He was 41.
Those familiar with the story will know that the filmmakers have taken a variety of liberties in telling it, but the core of the yarn remains intact.*
At its best, The Imitation Game stands as a fascinating look at the singular accomplishment of a strangely obsessive man.
*If you want to know more about discrepancies between Turing's real story and the movie, this article from the New York Review of Books is a good place to start. But keep in mind that movies long have valued dramatic imperatives over historical accuracy.