Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as computing pioneer Alan Turing, is the best thing about the uneven period drama The Imitation Game.
A pair of movies about British geniuses are about to go head-to-head in the year-end awards race. Both are science-minded period dramas cast with rising-star actors whose respective performances — Cumberbatch as Turing, and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything — bring appeal to films that otherwise fall victim to some of the biopic genre's most common clichés.
The Imitation Game offers Cumberbatch his most prominent cinematic leading role to date; other than TV's Sherlock and the little-seen Fifth Estate, he's mostly made his mark in supporting roles, particularly Star Trek Into Darkness (for trivia purposes, it's worth noting that he's also played Hawking, in a 2004 BBC production).
As one would expect from the intellectual-thespian hunk du jour, he plays Turing with absolute precision, fleshing out a man who left very little in the way of actual physical recordings behind. Rather than an imitation — despite the title, Redmayne's highly physical turn is the more imitative of the two — Cumberbatch's performance digs deep to bring nuance to the prickly, socially awkward misfit who becomes an unlikely war hero, running Britain's top-secret, Enigma-obsessed code-breaking team during World War II, and more or less inventing the computer along the way.
Though he clashes with much of the group (which includes Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) and frustrates his superiors (Mark Strong as more understanding MI6 head Stewart Menzies; Game of Thrones' Charles Dance as blustery Commander Alastair Denniston, who ran code-busting HQ Bletchley Park), Alan eventually triumphs with help from Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whose family looks askance at her mathematical prowess.
Their meeting of the minds eventually leads to a deeper understanding, and they become engaged to satisfy Joan's parents, who fear their daughter's smarts will hamper her hunt for a husband (major suspension of disbelief required there, since Knightley cuts a striking figure in her 1940s office wear chic). The strictly platonic relationship also offers a convenient cover for Alan, who as a gay man was in constant danger of being arrested — which, of course, he eventually was.
Solid direction from Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian filmmaker making his English-language debut (check out his 2011 thriller Headhunters if you missed its limited stateside release), manages to bring suspense to a tale that contains an awful lot of arguing and fiddling with machines. But those elements are necessary parts of the story, and one can't fault screenwriter Graham Moore, who adapts from Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma, from including them.
Where Moore comes up short: meticulously structuring The Imitation Game into three distinct parts, which are interwoven throughout the film and chronicle three eras of Alan's life. In his boarding-school adolescence (teen actor Alex Lawther is well-cast as baby Cumberbatch), Alan's sexuality awakens when he falls hard for a classmate; we also see him later in life, post-war, when the law goes after him for his "homosexual acts." The main chunk of the film, of course, takes place during the Bletchley Park era. Though each section propels the plot forward, finding the themes in Alan's life that make him both a praise-worthy icon and a biopic-worthy subject (count 'em: he was persecuted for being gay, he was a clandestine war hero, he was a long-distance runner, he invented the computer … it's practically an Oscar-growing petri dish), it's done with a certain heavy-handedness that isn't always balanced by Cumberbatch's measured performance.
To put it another way, this is the kind of movie that thinks it's adding a lot of deep meaning by repeating the same clunky line, seemingly ripped from a bumper sticker, in each of its chapters: "Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine." Explicitly stating the Moral of the Story not once but three times just feels lazy. Yeah, the audience probably isn't on the same genius level as Turing — but that doesn't mean you have to periodically interrupt the movie to make sure everyone is getting the message.