By Dana Barbuto
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The season for Oscar-baiting biopics about brilliant, eccentric Brits continues with “The Imitation Game,” the story of Nazi codebreaker Alan Turing. By deciphering the German communications system, it is estimated that he alone helped shave two years off World War II’s duration. Exquisitely played by Benedict Cumberbatch (an Oscar lock), Turing’s story joins similar biopics on Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”) and celebrated artist J.M.W. Turner (“Mr. Turner”) in the Oscar hunt.
Of the three, Turing’s tale might be most intriguing, simply because he was as much a riddle as the German Enigma machine he decoded. The irony is that Turing himself had to live within a secret code, too, because being a homosexual in that era was a punishable offense. But Norwegian director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore undermine the narrative by being overly obvious, including tidy plot contrivances that betray the story’s complexity. It’s basically a conventional telling of an unconventional man’s life. But Cumberbatch and an excellent supporting cast, led by a super-suave Matthew Goode and a delightful Keira Knightley make it worthwhile. Charles Dance is superb as the crusty commander of the Royal Navy. Mark Strong is equally effective as the chief of the MI6, the British intelligence agency.
The film oscillates between past and present, showing Turing as a shy and bullied boy having a first crush on a sympathetic boarding school classmate. Even back then, he knew he was different: “Mother says I’m an odd duck.”
When the film opens, it’s post-war, winter of 1952, and Turing’s flat was just robbed. But instead of ringing a burglar up on charges, the police haul Turing to jail, charging him with “gross indecency.” As Turing begins to tell his story to police, the film rewinds to Bletchley Park in 1939, where Turing is a sharp, but off-putting, mathematician and cryptologist. Despite being an “insufferable sod” (think: Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”), he’s reluctantly hired to crack the Nazi Enigma code.
To the dismay of his team, Turing works mostly solo. They “slow me down,” he contends. Much frustration, stops, starts and failures ensue as Turing constructs a huge noisy decryption machine with lots of red wires and spinning rotors. It’s an invention that ultimately earns Turing the title “father of computer science.”
It’s easy to look beyond the glossy sheen Tyldum puts on his movie because Cumberbatch is so riveting, able to be smug and irascible in moments when he goes toe-to-toe with colleagues and tongue-tied and awkward in scenes with Knightley’s Joan Clarke, the lone woman on the team. And, in the end, Cumberbatch is totally tragic when Turing is in the throes of side effects from chemical castration. Cumberbatch, with his distinct angular facial features and bright green-blue eyes, has got a presence and command that is tough to beat.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter at @dbarbuto_Ledger.
THE IMITATION GAME (PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking.) Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong. Grade: A-
Movie review: ‘Imitation Game’ is a real contender
By Dana Barbuto