They're classic characters — the geniuses so caught up in their lofty thoughts that social niceties evade or even annoy them. Eccentric on the outside, loveable underneath it all, everyone's seen it.
But Benedict Cumberbatch brings so much more to his portrayal of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who essentially invented the computer while trying to break the secrets of the Nazi code machine called Enigma in World War II.
The careful articulation, the pauses, the lingering of a phrase, the sonorous tone that hides tension — and that's just his voiceover narration. From the moment we meet Turing in "The Imitation Game," Cumberbatch offers up a character both condescending and socially confused, supremely confident of his abilities while still caught in a haze of wonder and worry about the world beyond his brain.
It's one of the year's great performances in one of the year's best movies, a real-life tragedy about accomplishment and injustice. Turing's social awkwardness and odd honesty make for some very funny moments, but this is an immeasurably sad story.
Turing was in his 20s when he was asked to join a team trying to figure out what to do about Enigma, a coding apparatus that offered 159 million possibilities for each message the Nazis transmitted — attack plans, bombing routes and times, etc. While the group's original leader, a chess champion named Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), is set on figuring it all out on paper — a statistical improbability of the highest order — Turing convinces Winston Churchill to let him build a "Turing Machine" that can calculate far faster than any human mind.
Turing also wants people who think outside the proverbial box, puzzle solvers, so he recruits a crossword wizard, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley at her finest). But Clarke is a single woman in 1940, and her parents think it's improper for her to live off by herself. So Turing, who has found an intellectual peer and social mentor in Clarke, proposes marriage.
The problem there is Turing is gay, although since homosexuality is a serious crime in Great Britain at the time, he's hardly out. So the man charged with breaking the code that could end World War II is, however absurd, a criminal.
All of this comes to a very good and a very bad end, with Turing's accomplishments remaining state secrets for decades after the war's final battle.
"The Imitation Game" is directed by Norway's Morten Tyldum and its staid British pace is miles away from his last effort, the raucous, super-charged "Headhunters," revealing impressive, subject-appropriate range. Notably, he has made a film about someone doing something while avoiding getting entangled in the mechanics of what's being done.
But this isn't a film about math; it's a film about drive, about imagination, and how brilliance thrives outside the mainstream. These are common enough themes given uncommon purchase in a film about a man who likely saved millions of lives by never fitting in.
'The Imitation Game'
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
Running time: 114 minutes
"The Imitation Game" (PG-13) Benedict Cumberbatch is splendid in the real story of eccentric British mathematician Alan Turing, who was charged with breaking the Nazi's code machine during World War II. One of the year's best. (114 minutes) GRADE: A