The Imitation Game review: “Benedict Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career”

"Cumberbatch highlights both Turing's genius and the barriers between him and the world, while Keira Knightley adds heart to a fascinating, thrilling and affecting film..."

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As if the collected excitement of a legion of Benedict Cumberbatch fans wasn’t enough, his new drama The Imitation Game has already picked up a few plaudits on its trip around the global film festivals, including the People’s Choice award at Toronto, and will be the opening film of the 2014 London Film Festival. 

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Such attention more than befits the film’s subject matter, the incredible story of code breaker Alan Turing (played by Cumberbatch). A brilliant but difficult maths prodigy, he is recruited by the government at the outbreak of the Second World War to decode the Enigma machine, Nazi Germany’s method of delivering coded instructions around the globe.

Obsessed by ‘solving the problem’, Turing is determined to build a machine (one of the earliest examples of a computer) that will crack the code, much to the frustration of his counterparts and superiors who doubt his ideas. The film also explores Turing’s homosexuality – a secret he guards carefully – the complicated bond between him and his fiancée Joan (Keira Knightley), and his eventual arrest for public indecency, which sees one of the greatest figures of the war end his life in ignominy, his efforts remaining a secret to all but those involved. 

The film very easily could have become A Beautiful Mind 2, but director Morten Tyldum (who helmed 2011’s excellent Headhunters) creates a sense of purpose to proceedings that steers it in the direction of a spy thriller. He has divided the film into two themes, the first being the mission to crack Enigma. Graham Moore’s compelling script and well-placed footage of battle on the front line underlines just what’s at stake, so this never simply becomes a film about a maths problem, but a matter of life and death.

The second theme, Turing’s sexuality and the intolerance that hastened the end of his life, is not explored quite as much as it could have been, but leads to an emotional final half-hour, underlined by a heart-breaking scene between Cumberbatch and Knightley at Turing’s home.

The sentimentality is laid on thick in parts, with many rousing, “all or nothing” speeches delivered. However, in a film where a lot of the “action” takes places on notepads and noticeboards, a heightened sense of what’s at stake keeps the plot from ever feeling dry.

Even for an actor with as impressive a CV as his, Cumberbatch is outstanding and gives the performance of his career. Much more than simply a series of twitches and social quirks, he develops Turing, highlighting both the genius of the man and the barriers between him and the world that genius created. It helps that he has some impressive sparring partners, including the always reliable Rory Kinnear as the police officer in charge of interrogating him, and the caustic Charles Dance as the commanding officer with whom the younger Turing clashes frequently.

Knightley adds heart to the film, creating a curious on-screen bond with Cumberbatch (not romance, not friendship, but somewhere in between), while several other cast members deliver somewhat expected but nonetheless polished performances. Matthew Goode as Turing’s caddish colleague and Mark Strong as the mysterious MI6 man are hardly stretches, but nonetheless add to the film’s depth. 

Fascinating and thrilling (for a movie largely set in a shed), The Imitation Game keeps you gripped by always reminding you of what’s at stake, as well as exploring the mind of a brilliant but ultimately tragic man to whom we evidently owe so much. A touch of familiarity may prevent the film from being something truly remarkable, but that may be also what makes it so affecting, and Cumberbatch so impressive.

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The Imitation Game is in UK cinemas from 14th November