The Imitation Game

Is anyone else tired of hearing the name Benedict Cumberbatch? I know I am. Mr. Cumberbatch is a hard-working actor whose body of work demonstrates versatility and depth. He also seems to be the only actor everyone is talking about anymore. Over the years, I’ve taken note of his performances but haven’t been blown away by anything he’s done. Yes, he’s good playing Sherlock Holmes on television, but he’s not the first actor to play the role and his interpretation isn’t definitive. The same can be said for his highly lauded turn as Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” where all the dark charisma he brought to the part still couldn’t compete with Ricardo Montalban (or his rubber chest cleavage). Cumberbatch has been good in bad movies (like his winning take on Julian Assange in the otherwise dismal “The 5th Estate”) and bad in bad movies (if you haven’t seen him in “August: Osage County,” then don’t). His fan base of enthusiastic admirers can’t get enough of discussing his uniquely serpentine handsomeness, which served him well when he was cast as a Smaug the Dragon. Yet, despite his seemingly ubiquitous presence in films and pop culture, there wasn’t anything in his body of work that truly stood out as a definitive, important contribution as an actor. Then I saw “The Imitation Game.”

Before I eat my words and sincerely compliment Mr. Cumberbatch’s performance, allow me to briefly explain what the film is. The trailer led me to believe it was yet another WWII drama, about the efforts of a group of mathematicians attempting to break the Nazi Enigma code. History tells us that this small but brilliant team, led by Alan Turing (played in the film by Cumberbatch) spent years in Bletchley Park, on the mentally exhausting task of figuring out how to decode Nazi attack orders. Their mounting stress, resulting from reports of growing fatalities and racing the clock to save lives, took a toll on their relationships with another. Turing, while an eccentric (to put it mildly) and a difficult collaborator, created a machine that changed the course of the war. His achievement proved bittersweet, as Turing’s hidden secret overshadowed his enormous contribution.

I thought I’d seen this film before, when it was called “Enigma,” the 2002 drama starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. That film, written by the brilliant Tom Stoppard, told a fictional version of Turing and his efforts. While expertly made, the story was presented in a convoluted, nearly impenetrable fashion. I was engrossed in the story and the details of cracking the code but felt distanced from the characters and the more intimate qualities of their lives.

“The Imitation Game” drew me in immediately, always connects to the human qualities (and not just the cerebral, intellectual aspects) of the key figures and emerges a polished, enticing thriller. The ensemble cast includes terrific work from Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and the wonderful Charles Dance. Yet, I can’t imagine the film working as well as it does without Cumberbatch. He manages the difficult feat of making Turing distinctly strange and off-putting, yet somehow keeps us fascinated and always rooting for him. Graham Moore’s screenplay portrays the struggle to unravel the Enigma machine and gives us flashbacks to Turing’s school days, as well as the outcome he met in the sad, final days of his life. The narrative juggles a lot and manages to keep the concurrent story lines coherent and gripping.

Cumberbatch’s loyal fans have been on board with him for years and I’m slow to finally join them. “The Imitation Game” is excellent and showcases an actor and world famous movie star giving a fantastic performance.