“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” This oft repeated line splendidly sums up Alan Turing, the subject of the riveting and tension filled biopic “The Imitation Game.” If you’ve never heard of Alan Turing, it’s no surprise. He was kept secret by the British government for 50 years. This brilliant mathematician became the father of the computer while feverishly working to crack the Nazi’s Enigma coding machine during World War II.
If you’ve never heard of Benedict Cumberbatch, you’ll never forget his name after seeing his astounding and emotionally stirring lead performance as Turning. The rapidly rising movie star, best known for his title role on the smash BBC television series “Sherlock,” does his best work to date as the abrasive, socially inept and supremely self-confident genius.
There are Sherlockian moments in his cold and robot-like manner that also provides much humor. But the depth of his beautifully nuanced portrayal of a desperately focused man hiding a personal secret goes beyond anything he has done on that show.
Even though Turing literally changed the course of human history – Winston Churchill said he had made the greatest single contribution to the Allied victory, helping to cut the war short by several years – and also created one of the first modern computers, many people have never heard of him.
That would be reason enough to applaud the arrival of The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore based on a 1983 book by Andrew Hodges.
But though it often feels like your basic highbrow British biopic, the film also happens to boast impeccable acting, especially from Cumberbatch, who masterfully captures the jittery, nervy brilliance of a man whose mind brought down the German war machine yet couldn’t process simple human interactions.
Turning is part of an elite top secret crew working for MI6 under the guise of radio manufacturers at Bletchley Park. He believes a machine is the key to cracking intercepted Nazi transmissions encoded by a machine that changes every 18 hours. His tireless efforts to convince others he is right and construct the machine are interspersed with flashbacks of his youth and flash-forwards to a minor incident in 1951 that brings great repercussions.
The story gets more interesting when the team realises it must keep its breakthrough a secret, lest the Nazis figure it out and change their code. They then enter into a painful calculus: what decrypted information can be used and what cannot – and hence which lives can be saved and which must be sacrificed?
There are surely numerous narrative shortcuts taken here. There’s also one of those slogan-type lines that seems far too tongue-trippingly clunky to be uttered by one character, let alone two: “Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Cumberbatch is surrounded by a cast of pitch perfect performers that includes Mark Strong, “Downton Abbey’s” Allen Leech and Keira Knightley in one of her finest and most mature roles. Though battle scenes are extremely minimal, they are some of the most original, visually impressive and powerfully effective we have seen. They are a great storytelling device to remind us what’s at stake in one of the year’s absolute must-see best.