The Imitation Game features an amazing lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch that’s maybe Oscar-worthy and definitely one of the best portrayals of someone on the autistic spectrum I’ve seen in a movie. Which makes it baffling and a bit upsetting that Cumberbatch is in denial about what the performance even is.
If his answer was uncertainty, that’d be fine. I understand skepticism about making retroactive diagnoses of historical figures (Alan Turing seems to be one of the least controversial retroactive diagnoses among experts, but whatever). But denial? Cumberbatch raises the question of if Turing’s very Aspergers-y qualities were more borne out of circumstance and upbringing that any natural neurological difference, which OK, might be reason for questioning, though said upbringing is never brought up in any of the movie’s numerous (and very autistic-relatable) childhood flashbacks. Where his answer really loses me is in two separate suggestions: 1) that Sherlock is more likely on the spectrum than Turing on the grounds that Sherlock is “a sociopath”, which demonstrates a major misunderstanding of autism and sociopathy, and 2) that even mentioning autism/Aspergers around Turing is due to “fear we have of people we don’t understand.”
No. As an autistic person, wanting open representation of successful people on the autism spectrum is the opposite of fear. It’s trying to reduce fear.
Director Morten Tyldum has at least acknowledged Turing can be read as autistic, but still seems to run into fear of accepting this. Again, if his thinking was just “we don’t feel comfortable diagnosing historical figures,” that’d be fine and understandable. But to talk about reading Turing as autistic “goes against everything the movie is trying to celebrate”? That’s ridiculous. Never mind that his counter-evidence is feeble (that he’s able, in his socially awkward way, to be emotionally expressive with Joan shouldn’t be evidence against him being on the spectrum, as many on the spectrum are perfectly capable of similar expression), but in portraying Turing with so many traits positive, negative, and merely unusual associated with the autism spectrum, celebrating him while finding labeling the portrayal as autistic “against everything the movie is trying to celebrate” basically reads as “We love autistic people, so long as we don’t call them autistic.”
It’s frustrating that Tyldum is so close to being right-on but instead ends up so wrong. Because right-on, Turing’s eccentricity and uniqueness is something that should be celebrated and not cured. You know who else wants their eccentricity and uniqueness to be celebrated and not cured? LOTS OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE! Wanting to celebrate Turing’s autistic traits is a positive. But the way they talk about how labeling as autistic is “against” this does doing a serious disservice to autistic people who deserve similar celebration of their uniqueness.
It’s amazing and kind of wonderful that a movie like The Imitation Game is now considered “safe” Oscar-bait when we’re not even a decade past the infamous snub of Brokeback Mountain. Turing’s story is one of the most powerful historic indictments of the damage homophobia wreaks on individuals and society, and it’s great a wider audience gets to learn about this story in the form of a smart and entertaining movie with an amazing lead performance. Yet in terms of how it addresses ableism in contrast to how it addresses homophobia, it’s a tough test for the “Death of the Author” theory. The movie itself is pretty much perfect for increasing understanding of autistic people. Yet judging by the dialogue surrounding it by its head creatives, you’d think it was a different movie entirely.