When Benedict Cumberbatch appeared on the screen in The Imitation Game it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen him act yet. I had seen him on Jimmy Fallon, and in otter memes, and gracing magazine covers, but I hadn’t seen him do the thing that’s his job. Funny how long that takes sometimes. I’m on board now.
I’m no Cumberbitch, though. He’s a very cute, charming person, but it’s not about that for me. Guy can act. (I must go back and watch Sherlock now!) His performance as Alan Turing is my favorite of the year, by far, and my pick for the Best Actor Oscar. Turing’s story is one I wish I had known earlier in my life, and am grateful to know about now. Between decoding the Nazi’s encrypted Enigma machine in World War II and masking his true sexual identity, he lived a nearly impossible life. Without intending to, he became a stoic, unheard presence in many movements, and his work and life saved probably millions of other lives, even if he couldn’t bear to live his own.
It’s devastating and magnificent to watch Cumberbatch bring this person to life. He doesn’t smile much, so when he does, you jump at the chance to enjoy yourself along with him. Most of the time, though, he’s drawn and serious, in his own head, strained, at a distance from the real world. Even though you don’t entirely understand how his mind works, you get frustrated right along with him, too, when his comrades and coworkers don’t see the world the way he does. You want him to make the kind of progress that he needs to make to win the war because you trust him. That’s the delicate balance that I think only Cumberbatch could have stricken — behind the misunderstood genius is a good person, an unselfish person who comes across as selfish 99% of the time.
Keira Knightley, as his partner Joan, is also really wonderful. I’m really enjoying how she’s breaking away from the traditional period pieces and expanding her breadth, because she can. She and Benedict have a lovely, friendly chemistry. They seem like they’d be friends in real life, in any era, and her Joan brings out Alan’s human side without actually speaking for him. Her story is also quite fascinating: To be the smartest woman in the room, yet to have to cover her intelligence by pretending to be a secretary, hurriedly finding a husband, and generally bowing down to the traditions of the day, must have felt impossible, too. She paved the way for a lot of women, also most likely without even knowing she was.
A ton of historical context had to be built into this movie, in the form of staged war scenes, actual footage of Hitler, Alan’s childhood backstory, and that sort of thing. It didn’t always feel completely seamless, mostly because the style and coloration was a little inconsistent. But without those pieces, without taking us out of the secret room in which Alan and his team were building Christopher, the first computer, we never would have gotten a full grasp of the scope of their project, and the immense pressure they were under. And even though some of these pieces looked and felt a hair clunky, they were placed just perfectly into the story. They came when we needed them most, and they told us exactly what we needed to know. Flashbacks, especially, tend to get in the way, but those in The Imitation Game felt elegant and poetic. Kid-Alan (Alex Lawther) tugged at our heartstrings in such an honest, non-saccharine way, probably because at that age (and in that time period), the feelings he was feeling were so foreign that being reserved and quiet was the only coping mechanism. What a sad, sorry childhood Turing must have led.
I really loved this movie, and am so glad it was made. I even wish that the programming and engineering scenes had been fleshed out a bit more, for the sake of my own stupid curiosity (though it might not have made for the most exciting story), and at the expense of the two random scenes in which Turing takes his frustration out on the running track. There’s so much more to learn about Alan Turing, and this compelling, wonderful film provides a fascinating introduction.