With his monumental forehead and widely spaced eyes, Benedict Cumberbatch more resembles the Star Child from “2001” than a movie sex symbol.
Nevertheless, he has his own army of groupies (the self-proclaimed “Cumberbitches”) and his unconventional looks pay off handsomely in roles as brainy outsiders.
Having already put his stamp on Sherlock Holmes for the BBC and PBS, Cumberbatch now takes on Alan Turing, the mathematician and inventor whose genius — he was instrumental in defeating the Nazis and is considered the father of the computer — wasn’t enough to keep him from running afoul of Britain’s draconian laws about “deviant” sexuality.
This film from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (maker of the nifty thriller “Headhunter”) resembles an extremely good installment of “Masterpiece Theatre,” right down to the familiar actors.
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But Cumberbatch’s central performance is so overwhelming that it elevates this historical drama into the realm of Shakespearean tragedy.
In early World War II, Turing is recruited to help crack Enigma, the Nazis’ allegedly unbeatable system for sending coded messages throughout the Reich’s war machine.
Denniston (Charles Dance), the brittle naval officer in charge of the effort, is not impressed with Turing, who seems indifferent or, worse, smug. (“Mother says I can be off-putting…”)
In fact, Cumberbatch gives us not just a brilliant eccentric but an autistic individual. He avoids eye contact. He’s incapable of reading other people’s emotions. He doesn’t “get” humor.
The puzzle he is handed: Each day the German’s Enigma machines are set to one of 159 million, million, million possible codes. Turing and the other brainiacs must identify that day’s code within 24 hours. After that they’ll have to start again from scratch.
Screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing) tells the tale by jumping among three periods in Turing’s life.
In the main story set in the top-secret enclave of Bletchley Park, Turing persuades the spy in charge of the project (Mark Strong) to finance the building of a huge machine (a marvelous wall of spinning rotors and thick red cables) that will go through the possible Enigma settings with far more speed than the human mind.
He brings into the group a woman, a mathematician/linguist (Keira Knightley) who defies rampant sexism to make a contribution. And throughout he faces the possibility of a sudden shutdown of his efforts by uncomprehending and narrow-minded leaders.
In flashbacks set in the 1920s, young Turing (Alex Lawther) suffers the torments of a British boarding school.
And framing both of these are segments set in 1953 near the end of Turing’s life. His Manchester apartment has been burglarized, and a police detective (Rory Kinnear) finds something’s fishy about this weirdo professor.
What’s really astonishing about Cumberbatch’s work is how he reveals the inner life of a man painfully uncomfortable with the very idea of emotional expression.
It should be easier for us to identify with any of his colleagues (among them Matthew Goode and “Downton Abbey’s” Allen Leech), but there’s never a moment when Cumberbatch doesn’t dominate. He has an uncanny knack of giving us just enough to intimate what’s going on inside that marvelous head.
In a year of terrific performances by leading men, Cumberbatch gets my vote for top honors.
And “The Imitation Game” does a fine job of explaining the contribution of British thinkers who, without ever handling a weapon, shaved two years off the war and saved an estimated 14 million lives.
The main mind behind that triumph, the movie maintains, was the monumentally frustrating Alan Turing.
As one colleague observes, “The world is a better place precisely because he isn’t normal.”
‘THE IMITATION GAME’
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking