The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game Movie New Pic (2)

Movie a Day Blog loves it when an actor not only lives up to his hype, but exceeds in by delivering an even more superlative performance than expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch fulfills this destiny with THE IMITATION GAME (2014, Theatrical), a very good if not great oblique biography of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who broke Nazi Germany’s impregnable Enigma code, and in the process, laid the basis for the modern computer, originally labeled “Turing’s Machine.”

It’s not the first time this tale has been told — there was a 2011 TV movie, CODEBREAKER, and an earlier film starring the fine British actor Derek Jacobi called BREAKING THE CODE (2011). There’s a popular series on Netflix now called “The Bletchley Girls,” about the women whose efforts were vital to British code-breaking. Why so much interest now in a somewhat obscure footnote of history?

It’s a great story: an anti-social math whiz ignores all his colleagues and superiors and through his own brilliant design, invents a machine capable of millions of relatively fast calculations, and ends World War II two  years early, saving millions of lives.

The catch? He’s gay in a period where England, above all, abhorred public homosexuality (while the private version thrived) and punished it viciously. Turing became a victim just a few short years after his war heroism, which, like the entire secret intelligence project at the Bletchley Tire Factory, was kept under post-war wraps. The symbol of this upper-class British hater is Charles Dance, well-cast in an abhorrent role.

I haven’t provided spoilers, it’s just the history  is well known and has been part of the publicity effort behind THE IMITATION GAME. All the more context, the better, but what carries this film is one thing and one thing only: Cumberbatch’s brilliant portrayal of a tortured genius.

More than any actor I have seen this year, Cumberbatch enables us to understand how his character literally thinks, not through tics or stutters, but by making him and his inner thoughts accessible to us through the humanity of his performance. All of his frustration, his limited amount of joy, his desire for companionship with similar intellect (Keira Knightley as the only woman in his inner circle in one of her best appearances) — all are realistically and emotionally communicated to us.

The direction by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian editor-turned-director making his first English language feature, is more than circumspect, it is quietly efficient in building up its narrative drive. The continue bloody toll of the war is the best spur to Cumberbatch and his team, all reasonably well-established as individual characters with Matthew Goode a particular standout as the natural leader who must give way to Cumberbatch’s epiphany of creating a machine that could simulate human activity, but much, much faster.

Not too much is made of this unexpected beginning to the computer age; the focus, rightly so, remains on Cumberbatch’s race against the war’s growing numbers of dead; every day’s delay leads to hundreds of lost lives. Cumberbatch becomes obsessed with his machine, to the near-destruction of his body and his mind, a descent into mono-mania that leads him to hallucinations and paranoia.

THE IMITATION GAME has faced criticism for shying away from anything but the idea of Turing’s homosexuality; we see some mysterious messages passed, but any sexual encounter is strangely and completely absent. It makes the film more palatable to a wider audience, of course; we accept Cumberbatch as gay because what heterosexual man could resist a proposal from Keira Knightley the way he does?

But it gives short shrift to a vital and important part of who Turing was, and not just because he was a victim. He was a person who could only express his love in dark shadows and grimy alleyways, and that part of his life deserved to be shown, too.

THE IMITATION GAME is more than just Cumberbatch’s electrifying turn, but without him, it would be no more than a serviceable rehashing of the previous two TV movies on the same subject. Every generation an actor or two comes along who has the capability of igniting audiences’ emotions, making them giddy with the excitement of watching him work.

Whether it’s playing Frankenstein in Danny Boyle’s play, Sherlock Holmes in the British TV series, or a dragon in the HOBBIT movies, Cumberbatch is the most arresting actor working today. He is capable of being miscast (see AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013, Movie a Day Blog 1/6/14), but when given a role with some meat on it, he’s a champion carnivore. He’s the only reason to see THE IMITATION GAME.

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