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Masterful acting brings ‘Imitation Game’ into spotlight

  • COURTESY WEINSTEIN CO.
    Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the brilliant but beleaguered code breaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.”
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‘Tis clearly the season for Oscar-worthy performances by British actors playing mathematical geniuses facing daunting personal odds.

Consider: A few weeks ago we had "The Theory of Everything," starring Eddie Redmayne as the brilliant physicist Stephen Haw­king. And now we have Bene­dict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game" as Alan Turing, the man chiefly responsible for cracking the vaunted Enigma code used by the Germans in World War II.

‘THE IMITATION GAME’

Rated: PG-13

At Dole Cannery Stadium 18 and Kahala 8

*** 1/2

But even though Turing literally changed the course of history — Winston Churchill said he’d made the greatest single contribution to the Allied victory — and, by the way, also created one of the first modern computers, you may well have never heard of him.

That would be reason enough to applaud "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore based on a 1983 book by Andrew Hodges. But though it often feels like your basic highbrow British biopic, the film also boasts impeccable acting, especially by Cumberbatch, who masterfully captures the jittery brilliance of a man whose mind could bring down an enemy yet couldn’t process simple human interactions.

He’s a man who can’t coherently answer whether he wants a sandwich for lunch. At the same time, he’s conceiving a machine that will defeat the Germans’ cipher machine, the Enigma, which uses code that changes every 24 hours, rendering traditional decrypting methods useless.

As we learn about this painful duality in Turing’s life, we also learn he was gay, in an era when homosexual activity was criminalized in Britain. After the war he was prosecuted for indecency. Given a choice of "chemical castration" or prison, he chose the former. He committed suicide at 41, a cyanide-laced apple by his bedside.

Oddly, though, the film addresses Turing’s death only with a quick line in the postscript, and no word on the method. It’s a strange omission — particularly given that Turing was said to have been fascinated by the "Snow White" story.

We begin after the war but soon flash back to 1939 and younger Turing’s job interview with the commander running the secret code-breaking program (a crusty Charles Dance). Given Turing’s dreadful personal skills, it doesn’t go well.

But he’s hired, and immediately starts alienating his colleagues, especially the charismatic Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode, excellent and also perhaps the best-looking mathematician ever portrayed on screen). (Well, at least until Keira Knightley makes her entrance.)

Turing is ridiculed for insisting on building his machine, taking up resources while soldiers are dying. Denied funding, he makes a direct plea to Churchill, who puts him in charge. That’s when he hires Joan Clarke (an appealing Knightley), his eventual fiancee. Numerous narrative shortcuts are taken here. There’s also one of those slogan-type lines that seems far too tongue-trippingly clunky to be uttered by one character, let alone two: "Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

But there’s truth to it. Turing’s story is indeed hard to imagine. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s committed performance, a lot more people will know it.

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