Subaltern Englishness

May 1, 2015

Earlier this year, a full-page ad in the Guardian U.K. supported a petition started by Matthew Breen, editor of the gay magazine The Advocate, demanding a pardon from the British government for 49,000 men convicted under the country’s former “gross indecency” law. The ad was paid for by the producers of The Imitation Game, the petition signed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum and his British lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

It was a promotional effort, perhaps, but also much more, highlighting as it did the posthumous pardon granted in 2013 to the film’s subject, Alan Turing, the mathematician acknowledged to have created the first computer and cracked the German army’s Enigma code during the Second World War. Turing, as the film portrays, was persecuted and given experimental “chemical castration” after being convicted for homosexual activity in 1952. He committed suicide soon after. With The Imitation Game’s late-2014 popular release, Turing’s pardon has become the thin end of a political wedge.

The film itself is a well-calculated balancing act. Its main plot depicts Turing’s sometimes prickly leadership of the cryptanalysis team at Bletchley Park as it attempts to understand Germany’s coded communications, and thus its war strategy. But it is the non-linear aspects of the protagonist’s necessarily secret sexual life that form the key narrative. In the flashback to Turing’s childhood, when he absorbs, stoned-faced, the news that his first love has died, we see the price paid by those marked by difference: a constantly maintained mask filtering the life force away.

Loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film is bare and slapdash in its rendering of the Second World War, refusing to pander to the conventional British jingoism about the era. Despite some a-ha moments, the film offers very little glory or payoff even for those who contributed the most, including the Bletchley Park team, which remained a secret long after the war.

In a refreshing moment of candid pub chatter, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) defends her professional friendliness to Turing (Cumberbatch), her socially inept boss: “Being a woman doing a man’s job I do not have the luxury of being an ass.” It is this aspect of the film, what you might call its intersectionality, which makes it politically contemporaneous. Even with the criticism of its historical inaccuracies, absence of gay sex and the downplaying of the collaborative effort of building the first code-breaking machine, The Imitation Game is a success despite (if not because of) the artistic liberties taken.

Cumberbatch as Turing: Persecuting difference

In his film ‘71, Yann Demange uses the war thriller genre in a similar way to Tyldum, in this case to present the British army foot soldier as a subaltern who finds more kindness from the enemy than the side he is fighting for. Set in Belfast at the beginning of the Troubles, the film shows us one night in the life of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a young soldier posted to Northern Ireland with an ill-equipped platoon. During their very first mission, to search for weapons on the Catholic side, the fresh-faced soldier is separated from his unit and begins a difficult journey through the mayhem of Belfast in 1971.

Along the way, Hook will meet the conflict’s major players: the old guard Irish Republican Army at odds with a younger and more violent “provisional” IRA, and the Irish-Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force in cahoots with the covert counter-insurgency unit of the British Army, the Military Reaction Force. The film offers an indictment of the notorious plainclothes MRF “death squads” that knowingly broke the army’s rules of engagement and did so with impunity, given the support of higher-ups determined to crush the Republican cause. This is a rare view of bloody war against the shocking backdrop of 1970s white English-speaking society, similar situations in non-white environments being all too familiar.

When he is rescued by a young Protestant Irish boy, Hook is brought to a pub where he recognizes members of the MRF, first seen in the barracks, who are now planning a bomb attack. But the pub explodes, killing the boy and putting Hook on the run. The MRF wants to silence him (he knows too much), the “provisional” IRA want to kill him, while the British army seeks his rescue. After an operation performed without anaesthetic by a Catholic doctor, a wounded Hook drags himself around the stairs and hallways of the Divis Flats housing projects, a high-conflict zone during the Troubles that has since been demolished.

What he learns of war in one night leaves Hook grateful (for his survival) but embittered at the plight of the Irish and in particular his young benefactors, who remind him of the kid brother he left behind when he was posted to Belfast. His experience casts even more doubt on the British presence in Northern Ireland than if the film had taken an obvious political side. When the wounded soldier is dismissed with a perfunctory assurance that the British army looks after its own, while rejecting his version of events, the irony is thick. ’71 is a rare combination of art house and thriller, capturing the visceral experience of someone caught in a war he does not understand.

Both Tyldum and Demange worked with very strong screenplays that honour outsider-hood and vulnerability in a dangerous environment. The Imitation Game, written by Graham Moore, topped the legendary Hollywood Black List of best unproduced screenplays in 2011; three years later it took the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Demange, a successful TV director who made his feature film debut with ’71, is of Algerian-French background, raised by his mother in a London working class milieu on a diet of French New Wave cinema. He was writing a film about an orphan in the Algerian civil war when the screenplay by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke appeared.

In their own ways, these two films question the politics of heroism and winning. They present a subaltern history—a history told from below—based on the perspective of groups excluded from established power structures, groups that are fearful and wounded. They remind us of the personal and political truths that are suppressed, even on the “good” side, when history is written by the winners.

Chandra Siddan is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker.