Benedict Cumberbatch Gives Oscar-Caliber Performance in 'The Imitation Game'

And Keira Knightley proves herself one of the most underrated actresses in the business.

The Weinstein Company

Benedict Cumberbatch stares at people like coded messages in The Imitation Game. They're puzzles to be solved, but as genius as he was, the real-life Alan Turing, who probably landed somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, didn't really have the tools to figure them out. In the movie we watch him start and stop while trying to decode the art of conversation, all while cracking the Nazis' Enigma machine with an inexhaustible wealth of confidence.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's new biopic successfully humanizes the great codebreaker and computer scientist by leaning hard on this split. Based on Andrew Hodges' biography, Alan Turing: The EnigmaThe Imitation Game commits to a premise: Turing's one-of-a-kind mind was a weapon capable of winning the war against Germany, yet it also left him vulnerable to exactly the kind of witch hunt that eventually brought him down.

The Imitation Game opens with Turing being questioned by police, who are investigating a break-in at his home. One investigator, sensing something's not right, has tried to figure out if Turing is a spy, but instead he's discovered the mathematician is gay. It's not what the officer was looking for, but just as in real life, it leads to a gross indecency charge that damages Turing, arguably beyond repair.

The story is told in three timelines. The first is in 1952, when Turing was investigated, but most of the story takes place during the years he was at Bletchley Park, where he worked his cryptography magic during World War II. The third timeline goes back to Turing's schoolboy days, and shows how his tragic first love with a boy named Christopher helped shape him in later years.

The Imitation Game does well to narrow its focus to Turing's cracking of the Enigma. It keeps the movie from sprawling while giving us insight into an historically over-looked figure.

It's hard not to compare and contrast the film with The Theory of Everything, the recent Stephen Hawking biopic starring Eddie Redmayne. The movies are like fraternal twins. Both Cumberbatch and Redmayne give Oscar caliber performances as brilliant British scientists, but while I think Redmayne is ever-so-slightly superior, I liked The Imitation Game's story better. It's faster-paced and clever, and benefits from not having to cover so much ground. Both films benefit hugely from their supporting actresses, both of whom were nominated last week for the Golden Globe and SAG awards. As Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley plays a woman whose anger at being so often underestimated seethes quietly just under an impeccably composed surface. It's hard not to see some of Knightley herself in Joan. Filmmakers have rarely seemed to know what to do with her, and The Imitation Game reveals her to be one of the most underestimated actresses in the industry.

The Imitation Game keeps a lot of balls in the air. It shines a light on Turing's work. It pays lip service to women's fight for parity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. It tells the story of a gay martyr. It assembles an amazing ensemble of supporting characters. And it's a showcase for the talents of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. The film works on all those levels, and succeeds in being humane, moving, and entertaining. 

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