Awards season always makes room for at least one plummy-toned veddy-English drama (think The King's Speech), so it's no surprise to see Benedict Cumberbatch refereeing ye olde internal wrestling match between British reserve and tortured feeling in the "based on a true story" feature The Imitation Game.
Cumberbatch, best known for making intellect sexy on the BBC's Sherlock, inhabits WWII codebreaker and computer innovator Turing in his social anxiety, fierce determination and, yes, keen intellect. The story mostly unfolds in the early 1940s at the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, where Turing and a team of codebreakers worked to break the German naval Enigma code, largely by use of a electromechanical cryptanalytic machine, a prototypical computer of Turing's design. But Graham Moore's screenplay (derived from Andrew Hodges' book Alan Turing: The Enigma) also leapfrogs backward to Turing's schoolboy days (and first love with a male friend) and forward to the incident that found Turing prosecuted for "gross indecency."
In his English-language directing debut, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) plays it safe: The Imitation Game is a dutiful biopic, tasteful to a fault. It's Cumberbatch who elevates the material with depth of feeling, radiating the desperate intelligence and desperate feeling of a man compelled to achieve greatness through puzzle-solving and to tamp down his sexual orientation to survive in a discriminatory time. Both compulsions prove sad, with Turing depicted as being less interested in winning the war (something for which no less than Winston Churchill principally credited Turing) than proving his own thinking correct, meanwhile making doe-eyed, guiltily halfhearted overtures to colleague Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).
Apart from Cumberbatch's performance (and fine supporting turns from the likes of Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, and Rory Kinnear), The Imitation Game's principal achievement is simply in erecting a more visible platform for Turing's story, which has seen but a few previous treatments on stage (Breaking the Code on the West End and Broadway) and screen (two telefilms, one called Codebreaker and one preserving Derek Jacobi's performance in Breaking the Code). That Turing's heroic achievements, including being credited as a "founder of computer science," haven't been heralded more often in drama owes to his work going unrecognized for decades due to the Official Secrets Act.
Where Tyldum's film tiptoes is in depicting Turing's homosexuality in an adult context: boy Turing experiences love, while adult Turing's gay impulses remain offscreen, possibly to underline that his sexual orientation should have been beside the point or to give the police investigation into his private life the air of innuendo, or possibly due to some squeamishness on the part of the filmmakers or notoriously hands-on distributor The Weinstein Company. At any rate, The Imitation Game serviceably dramatizes an important historical story while giving rising star Cumberbatch suitably juicy material.