Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to assaying men of complex mental aptitude and anguish, be it Sherlock Holmes or Khan Noonien Singh in last year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” which opens in Washington, D.C., Friday, Mr. Cumberbatch portrays real-life British math professor Alan Turing, whose machine “Christopher” successfully broke the German Enigma code machine during World War II.
In what is almost certainly to be an Oscar-nominated turn, Mr. Cumberbatch portrays the wonky Turing as a man both arrogantly sure of himself while keeping secrets within at bay.
The screenplay, by first-time writer Graham Moore, is likely the wittiest of the year. Verbal jousting has always been a high mark of British comedies of manners, and “Imitation Game” features several scenes of startling repartee, not the least of which is an early one-on-one between Turing and his eventual boss Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), who is overseeing the anti-Enigma mission.
“I’m good at puzzles,” Turing says before Denniston promptly screams for his secretary to escort Turing out. Ah, but then Turing mentions Enigma, and his eccentricities are soon looked over as this man may, just may, win the war for the Crown.
Another verbal gem comes when a member of MI6 appears in the roomful of math whizzes. “But there are only five divisions. There is no MI6.” “That’s the spirit,” responds the spymaster.
Keira Knightley costars as Joan Clarke, a codebreaker brought on to the Enigma project. The chemistry between Miss Knightley and Mr. Cumberbatch gives human sizzle to what at times can be a rather technical story. (Computer programmers are a geeky bunch, and to be there more or less inventing them — under the shadow of the greatest armed conflict in history, no less — required a singularity of purpose that left little time for human connection.)
While Turing shares a complex relationship with Clarke, perhaps the film’s most significant relationship is between Turing and his computer, nicknamed “Christopher” after a childhood friend who vanished from Turing’s life one painful day.
The scarring of that loss will haunt Turing forever forward, and the reverence with which Mr. Cumberbatch utters the machine’s name brings forth in his visage instant connection and recognition of the departed name from his past. Mr. Cumberbatch is masterful in evoking the loneliness at the epicenter of this genius’ mad universe.
Turing’s efforts were classified for decades, and his contributions to computer science were also kept under wraps due largely to his postwar conviction for “indecency.”
Mr. Cumberbatch handles Turing’s pain and loss with an air of near-Shakespearean aplomb. The fact that Turing was also a genius of significant proportions made his double life that much more difficult to bear behind the veil of secrecy enforced upon him by the government — and the country — he had worked so valiantly to save from tyranny.
TITLE: “The Imitation Game”
CREDITS: Directed by Morten Tyldum, screenplay by Graham Moore
RATING: PG-13 for violence
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS