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Cumberbatch's Turing passes the test in 'The Imitation Game'

Benedict Cumberbatch is on enigmatic form as the computing pioneer and war hero, but this biopic doesn't quite crack the code.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Jack English

We've done our best to avoid spoilers, but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing maybe bookmark this page and read it when you've seen the film after it opens this weekend...

It is the height of the Second World War, and battles rage on many fronts...not least in the airwaves all around us. At Bletchley Park, England, a team of experts is recruited to try and crack the German Enigma code, a technological race against time that could save millions of lives. One of those experts is the genius mathematician Alan Turing, but his difficult personality might sabotage everything he's worked for -- and his biggest secret can only lead to his downfall.

Directed by Morten Tyldum, "The Imitation Game" unfolds in a triple narrative: the wartime code-cracking at Bletchley Park is framed by Turing's early years at school, and his later years when he is investigated for "indecency". The three strands intertwine to add mystery and context to what is for some viewers a familiar story, as well as bringing out the metaphorical aspects of Turing's life.

"The Imitation Game" suggests a new era of all-pervasive communication and technology bigger and smarter than the people who created it. Alan Turing, played by "Star Trek Into Darkness" star Benedict Cumberbatch, sees a future that short-sighted scientists and stiff-upper-lipped military officers simply can't grasp. In fact, the film links the events of Turing's life not just with the coming of the information age, but also contemporary issues about surveillance, intelligence and the reasons for fighting a war.

Breaking the Nazis' Enigma codes at Bletchley Park (photos)

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As Turing, Cumberbatch's detached performance isn't a million miles from his "Sherlock" persona, but with an awkwardness and very human vulnerability alongside the fierce intelligence. At the heart of the film, Cumberbatch makes Turing enormously sympathetic, a doomed outsider who lived in the wrong time in many ways.

Cumberbatch is on award-baiting form, but he's more than matched by Alex Lawther as the young Turing. Lawther's performance mirrors Cumberbatch's guarded turn with more naked emotion, providing an essential glimpse into why the older man was so closed off.

The person to get behind that wall is Kiera Knightley's Joan Clarke, Turing's code-breaking counterpart and one-time fiancée. The film makes a half-hearted attempt to disguise Knightley's movie star-ness with cardies and a shocking dye job. She does well though, holding her own despite being saddled with the thankless role of "Female Character who Humanises Unsympathetic Male Lead" -- she's even saddled with romantic tropes like a turning-up-late meet-cute, but she's enjoyably strong-minded even as she's frustrated by the sexism and parochialism of the time.

The other highlight is Mark Strong's phlegmatic spy, who drops in every now and again to dispense laconic quips -- and deliver cold hard doses of political reality, blurring the lines of good and bad as the characters discover any victory in a war is a hollow victory.

In a world of secrets and codes and paranoia, Turing had his own dangerous secret: he was gay. The film portrays the early stirrings of his sexuality as a boy, and culminates in his prosecution later. Unfortunately there's a gap in the portrayal: the film painstakingly constructs a character who can't interact with others, but backs away from actually showing any romantic connection, leaving you wondering how he forms and pursues these affairs that are talked about but never seen. Outside of his work, Turing's personal life is hinted at solely by Cumberbatch's tortured brow.

Sadly, the screenplay is often by the numbers, from the "Beautiful Mind"-style genius montage -- our hero hunched over a desk scribbling, his indecipherable notes spreading across the wall with every cut -- to the "If you fire him you have to fire me", "And me!" scene.

In order for Turing to be the lead, everyone else is portrayed as less talented or even nakedly obstructive. And for a story that's all about hidden meanings, there's a lot of clanging moments as the subtext is hammered to the surface: at one point Turing suggests he wants to build "a...digital computer". "A digital computer?" echoes Clarke, just in case anyone in the audience didn't get it the first time.

Ultimately though, "The Imitation Game" is an interesting look at the life of a fascinating and complex character, and a tragic tale that still resonates today.

"The Imitation Game" is released in UK cinemas on 14 November and US theatres the following week.