Silver Screen: The Imitation Game ****
While Louis Zamperini faced incomprehensible physical hardships in the Pacific, British mathematician Alan Turing was fighting a different battle behind the front lines. German bombs shredded London while English citizens starved as convoys of food aid were intercepted at sea by U-boats. Allied forces even had access to broadcasts of the German battle plans, but with one hitch: The Nazis translated all their communiqués into the allegedly unbreakable Enigma code, which baffled even the best minds of free Europe.
Enter Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a curt, cloistered genius whose antisocial demeanor surely would have landed him on some spectrum or another in the modern age. At one point in director Morten Tyldum’s compelling character study, a lonely Turing complains to his only friend that people never say exactly what they mean; they couch it in idiom and implication he can’t comprehend. This early difficulty makes Turing oddly well-suited for his assigned task when brusque British military commander Denniston (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) conscripts him to join the brainy team working to crack Enigma.
Turing is convinced the key to breaking the code is a kind of thinking machine that can do massive amounts of calculations in a narrow window of time. This idea lands him in charge of the secret project, much to the chagrin of Denniston. Turing must learn to work with the assembled team, which includes chess master Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and puzzle savant Joan (Keira Knightley), amid an atmosphere of secrecy and subterfuge where everyone seems to be hiding something.
Turing’s biography could be approached from many angles: as a spy thriller, a history of technological innovation, or a gay-rights polemic. Screenwriter Graham Moore narrows the film’s focus to the war years but expands on Turing’s life with a handful of flashbacks and a frame story about a mysterious break-in at his home in the early 1950s. The screenplay’s delicate structure allows director Tyldum to not only touch on all of these aspects, but to find the connections between them. The Imitation Game never feels overstuffed nor professorial; it has more in common with a Graham Greene novel than fusty textbook.
Cumberbatch excels at playing thorny, introverted men whose asymmetrical confidence renders them simultaneously fragile and bullheaded. His dapper good looks are slightly contrasted by a tight-set jaw and serpentine eyes, giving him an alien quality, as though he were the world’s handsomest space invader. Cumberbatch has put that same bracingly eccentric quality to use playing a brusque but brilliant Sherlock and to posit Julian Assange as half mad in his singleminded pursuit of transparency in The Fifth Estate. Here he’s more empathetic, more wounded and openly confounded by social etiquette. There’s no pity in his portrayal of Turing, but there is a sadness at its core, one made all the more resonant by the movie’s tragic conclusion. And although this is most definitely the Benedict Cumberbatch Show, he’s aided by a knockout supporting cast of top British actors including Goode, Dance, Knightley, Mark Strong, and Rory Kinnear, the latter so memorable from the startling debut episode of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Black Mirror.
The Imitation Game generates an incredible amount of suspense from paperwork, problem-solving, and statistical analysis, while Unbroken struggles to find the life in a literal life-or-death scenario. Tyldum succeeds where Jolie fails because he chooses one genre and slyly subverts it rather than tries to do everything at once, and never loses sight of the character who links a series of spectacular events.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.