Review: Cumberbatch shines as gay wartime codebreaker Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch, center, appears in a scene from
Benedict Cumberbatch, center, appears in a scene from “The Imitation Game.” Jack English, The Weinstein Company

‘Tis clearly the season for Oscar-worthy performances by British actors playing mathematical geniuses facing daunting personal odds.

Sound overly specific? 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.

 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 arrival of “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 high-brow British biopic, the film also happens to boast impeccable acting, especially by Cumberbatch, who masterfully captures the jittery, nervy brilliance of a man whose mind could bring down an enemy yet couldn’t process simple human interactions.

Was Turing autistic, or did he have Asperger’s syndrome? Who knows – today we’d probably say he was “on the spectrum.”

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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 somehow defeat the Germans’ own 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.

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