Taking its place among those handsome biopics the British do so well, The Imitation Game tells the fascinating (and ultimately tragic) story of mathematician Alan Turing. A day after the UK enters the Second World War, the Cambridge-educated Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives at Bletchley Park, a top-secret center for breaking military codes used by the Germans — and is soon put to work on cracking a heretofore impenetrable code called Enigma. As presented by director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the mercurial Turing is impatient with social conventions and the accepted chain of command. And he is harboring his own risky secret: he prefers bedding boys to girls, resisting even the charms of Joan Clarke, a particularly fetching fellow code-breaker (played by Keira Knightley).
Cumberbatch, as you might expect, bristles with brilliance in the role – and should be considered an Oscar frontrunner. We’ve seen him as Sherlock Holmes, so we never doubt that he packs more brainpower than anyone else on the Enigma-busting team. But, unlike the emotionally cold sleuth, Turing is a real-life historical figure, sensitive and troubled. He feels deeply and passionately for his life’s work, and tears often flood his eyes, a repressed stammer forcing itself on his lips. The performance bears so many shades of varying emotion, on the surface and deep below, that it is nothing short of miraculous.
Among Turing’s many challenges, so vividly embodied by Cumberbatch, is one of identity: who he is, must remain an enigma. The mathematician and crossword-puzzle fanatic cannot make public his proclivities, no more than he can share who he fully is: A genius of visionary foresight into the still-embryonic field of artificial intelligence, and one of the pioneers behind the development of the modern computer.
While ultimately breaking Enigma, and turning the tide of the war in the Allies favor, Turing did not survive to enjoy the ascendance of democracy in his post-war life. In 1952, the police charged him with gross indecency after he acknowledged that he was in homosexual relationship. A judge imposed a sentence of chemical castration. He committed suicide a year later.
Some may know Alan Turing from the play turned TV film Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, or the movie Codebreaker or even the recent musical, A Man from the Future,composed by two members of the Pet Shop Boys. Yet, with cult-star Cumberbatch in the lead, the Turing triumph and tragedy will reach a much wider audience. Hopefully the film’s message of hard-won tolerance, and the sacrifices made by lesser-known martyrs to the cause, will bolster the continued struggle for equality for all.
The Imitation Game opens in theaters on Nov. 21