Real Science is all the rage at the movies this season. “Interstellar” all but turned Einstein into a co-scenarist. Disney’s animated film “Big Hero 6” focused on brainiac kids. Now dueling studies of British mathematician/geniuses arrive in the extraordinary dramas, “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game.”
The latter concerns a fellow many of us might not have heard about if Queen Elizabeth hadn’t granted Alan Turing a posthumous pardon on Christmas Eve last year. Indeed Turing’s entire war record, the movie’s main focus, where he helped crack Nazi Germany’s intercepted coded messages thereby shorting the war by at least two years, was kept secret for a half century.
Turing was, among other things — take a deep breath — a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, pioneering computer scientist, mathematical biologist, marathon and ultra distance runner.
The fast-rising and already extremely popular English actor Benedict Cumberbatch delivers such a masterful performance as this unusual man that this might even be seen in years hence as his breakthrough role.
In adapting Andrew Hodges’ Turing biography, “The Enigma,” first-time screenwriter Graham Moore positions him as an odd, mostly anti-social Aspergian outcast, barely tolerant of colleagues and with an overdeveloped appreciation of his own powerful intellect — an appreciation, as it turns out, that is not unwarranted.
He gets introduced to the audience and to his prickly Royal Navy Commander and eventual boss (Charles Dance, marvelous) as a haughty individual with little patience for others without his high I.Q., yet a man who can still stammer and fumble the most ordinary tasks such as simple conversations or ordering lunch.
Coming aboard at Bletchley Park, home to the Government Code and Cypher School, to work on decryption of the “unbreakable” German cipher machine known as Enigma, he alienates his colleagues especially its leader, national chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and is nearly fired every few movie minutes.
When he protests against those blocking his methods directly to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister surprises everyone by making Turing the new leader. Alan then fires a few and restaffs through challenging crossword puzzles, doing the unthinkable when he hires a woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).
They even briefly become engaged until he confesses, what she and others long suspected, his homosexuality.
The film unfolds in three time periods.The film frames the war years with Alan’s 1952 arrest for “gross indecency,” when he is caught in a love affair with a young man, and his school days at Sherborne School in Dorset, where he develops a crush on a fellow student named Christopher.
His ‘50s-era interrogation by a sympathetic police detractive (Rory Kinnear) provides the narration for the war years while the childhood flashbacks add emotional heft to this portrait of a mathematics artist as a young cryptanalyst.
The first half of the movie plays like a thriller with the war going against the Allies, the body count mounting, and the cryptanalysts no closer to solving the Enigma riddle. The breakthrough comes in perhaps an overly Hollywood fashion.Interestingly enough, the movie is only at the half way mark.
Here things get even more intriguing. Alan and shadowy MI6 agent (Mark Strong) quickly agree that their breaking of the code must be kept secret lest the Germans get wind of the intercepts of their secure transmissions and develop a new methodology.
This leads to a “blood-soaked calculus” where a handful of individuals must determine whose lives must be lost for the greater good. Certain intercepted information can be acted upon because it might have come from different sources; others simply cannot.
There are also enough double agents, slipping secrets to the Russians, supposedly Allies, worthy of a John le Carré novel. Meanwhile, his relationship with Joan gets trickier and in the post-war sequences his own ability even to keep a job depends on the outcome of his legal difficulties in a country where homosexuality was still illegal.
So “The Imitation Game” is a wartime thriller and relationship film wrapped up in a character study of a brilliant scientist. Cumberbatch is thrilling to watch; you sense the joy he must get out of his acting especially when in such a juicy role.
Knightley always manages to find strength and intelligence in all the roles she plays. Her Joan can still cower at her parents’ demands but stand up to this difficult man and even suggest an unconventional marriage to him, of people ideally suited to one another intellectually if not sexually.
The smaller roles all are not only well performed but incredibly well written. Blending all the time frames and divergent personalities into an agreeable whole is Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), who makes his English-language debut.
Considerable contributions come from Spanish cinematographer Oscar Faura with his 35mm lensing and fine period production design by Maria Djurkovic that recalls her earlier work on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
Opens: November 28, 2014 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production: Black Bear Pictures, Bristol Automotive Productions
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Mattew Beard, Alex Lawther
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Graham Moore
Based on the book by: Andrew Hodges
Producers: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwartzman
Executive producer: Graham Moore
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: William Goldenberg
PG-13 rating, 114 minutes