Is there room for two prestige-festooned biopics of British geniuses in this year’s Oscar race? We’ll find out soon enough when the nominations are announced in January. Until then, hard on the heels of Eddie Redmayne’s physically flawless performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, we now have Benedict Cumberbatch as code-breaking savant Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
With his angular, storklike features, mischievous blue-eyed squint, and pack-a-day purr, Cumberbatch has, seemingly overnight, established himself as the go-to guy when it comes to playing fiery, intelligent men with a streak of antisocial arrogance. Whether he’s a Star Trek villain, an intel-spilling cyberpunk, or legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes, the actor imbues his characters with an almost Aspergian level of detached brilliance. He always seems like he’s harboring a deep, dark secret—a secret he makes those of us in the audience desperate to know.
Turing was a man with his fair share of secrets too. It’s no wonder he was so drawn to ciphers and games. After all, he had to live in code. A closeted homosexual at a time when being gay was punishable by law, the Cambridge mathematics whiz was tapped by Winston Churchill to lead a covert team of eggheads to crack Hitler’s Enigma code during WWII. The Nazis had designed a marvel of engineering that could send military messages without the Allies listening in. Well, they could listen in, but what they heard was just a hash of Morse gibberish. You had to know the machine’s settings, which were changed daily, to understand the transmissions. The seeming impossibility of the challenge was like catnip for Turing.
Directed with chess-match ingenuity by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (his previous film was the 2011 Jo NesbO adaptation Headhunters), The Imitation Game chronicles Turing’s race to outwit the Germans from the tweedy, top secret confines of British intelligence at Bletchley Park. Screenwriter Graham Moore fleshes out his character first by flashing back to Turing’s boarding-school crush on a fellow student who showed the picked-on loner compassion, then by leaping forward to Turing’s 1951 arrest for indecency. It’s a cliché, but The Imitation Game really is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Maybe it was due to the double life he was forced to lead, but Cumberbatch’s Turing comes across as so socially awkward that his co-workers (including a suave Matthew Goode) are as helpless in deciphering him as they are the Nazis’ gizmo. The only one who manages to get remotely past his exterior is the team’s lone female cryptographer, Joan Clarke (a terrifically plucky Keira Knightley). As a woman in the 1940s who has the temerity to aspire to more than the steno pool, she feels, like Turing, the sting of being an outsider. Like a lot of the film, the parallels are a little too neat.
I suspect some people will find The Imitation Game‘s tidier plot contrivances and on-the-nose metaphors to be too conventionally Hollywood, or grouse that Turing’s rougher edges have been sanded down to achieve a genteel, for-your-consideration polish. I can think of worse sins. Especially because the film is anchored by yet another hypnotically complex Cumberbatch performance. He’s turning greatness into a habit. B+