Few movie stars are more ubiquitously typecast than Benedict Cumberbatch, whose rise to cultural prominence has been nothing short of meteoric. Cumberbatch is now a go-to star for directors seeking a genius or supervillain, coupling a certain aristocratic British charm with a Sheldon Cooperesque tendency to hold average society in utter contempt. “The Imitation Game,” in which Cumberbatch stars as cryptologist and early computer engineer Alan Turing, capitalizes on these strengths while simultaneously probing deeper.
Directed by Morten Tyldum (responsible for the criminally underrated Scandinavian thriller “Headhunters”), “Game” confidently jumps between Turing’s painful childhood at preparatory school (1928), battle to reverse-engineer the German ENIGMA machine (early 1940s), and tortured final months (1951), with its middle chapter commanding the largest share of celluloid. With World War II in full swing, Turing (then a mathematics professor at Cambridge) and a team of other codebreaking experts are tasked with decrypting German communications. The wrinkle: ENIGMA machine codes are reset every night at midnight, wiping out the day’s codebreaking progress.
Their only chance for lasting success rests with a massive mechanical decryption engine which Turing dubs “Christopher” – a project met with skepticism by military authorities. Assisted by boldly iconoclastic prodigy Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Turing staves off defunding efforts long enough to see his machine succeed. Their ultimate success, however, leads the team into an ever-denser thicket of moral dilemmas, particularly regarding the proper use of military intelligence and the notion of a “greater good.” These themes – far more engrossing and unique than those typically found in Oscar-friendly biopics – propel “Game” toward its tragic conclusion.
Turing, convicted of indecency (i.e. homosexuality), is offered the choice between prison and chemical castration, and chooses the latter. This element serves as a backdrop to the film’s most emotionally wrenching moments, in which Turing, racked with physical and psychological agony, desperately grasps at the cords and boxes comprising Christopher’s latest iteration. For Turing, a separation from Christopher – removal to prison – is unthinkable, even if it requires the destruction of his sexual impulse. In Turing’s mind, his creation has crossed the anthropic divide, becoming more than simply a collection of parts: it is both his mirror and his progeny, the one entity into which the wholeness of his identity has been projected. Accordingly, he submits to the court-ordered hormone treatments, and yet another human attribute separating him from his machines is purged away.
It is in these moments that Cumberbatch captures the true extent of Turing’s alienation, delivering a rawly visceral performance that will demand Academy attention in the months to come. Here, the impassive “Sherlock” demeanor is finally broken down, and a deeply human desire for intimacy and understanding is left exposed. It’s a remarkable progression from Cumberbatch’s early work.
Thematically speaking, “The Imitation Game” offers a stark look at the inhumanity of government-mandated antigay measures, alongside a critique of the casual workplace sexism faced by Clarke. At times, these elements come across as perhaps a little on-the-nose (Turing’s story speaks for itself, without the need for intertitles explicitly spelling out the movie’s message), but such a tendency is certainly forgivable given Turing’s undeniable suffering. But at its heart, “Game” is more a plea for compassion than a call for specific forms of social justice. Who are the Turings in your life? “Game” asks. Are you willing to listen to those you’ve written off as freakish or socially dysfunctional?
The history of modern technology is not a field with which I’m particularly familiar, so Turing’s remarkable life story was new to me. And while it hits many of the standard Hollywood-biographical-drama notes (World War II? Check. Misunderstood math-and-sciency lead? Check. Woman who helps humanize him? Check. Pithy quote used to bookend the story? Check), Cumberbatch’s fierce yet nuanced lead performance remains compelling throughout. Without ever lapsing into cheap “tearjerker” territory, “Game” successfully bridges its cerebral and emotional elements – a bridging which is itself the very soul of the story unfolding onscreen.
“The Imitation Game” is fully deserving of whatever accolades it receives. Here’s hoping the Oscar voters agree.
A riveting, complex portrait of troubled brilliance, propelled by Cumberbatch at his very strongest.
Normalized Score: 7.9