THE IMITATION GAME (NC16)
114 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: During World War II, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a mathematician, is part of a team of codebreakers brought together by the British government to crack Enigma, the German system of communications encryption. It appears to be an impossible task, but Turing has a plan: To build a machine that runs calculations faster than any person or machine. Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) becomes the first female to join the group.
You need time to pass to take the full measure of a man and that goes a long way to explaining why this biopic works better than American Sniper, its rival in the Best Picture category in the Oscar race.
Turing's life works better as a movie, but only just. This depiction of the man who helped birth concepts integral to computer science sticks too closely to the current prestige biopic formula.
Turing (Cumberbatch), for example, is gifted with great smarts, but the screenplay finds it necessary to afflict him with sympathy-inducing, autism-like behavioural tics - it does not trust the audience to like a bright man unless he is reduced in some other capacity.
Breakthroughs by the codebreaking team are depicted as "eureka" moments worthy of a detective show on television and the team is also shown to be making strategic military decisions suspiciously far above its pay grade.
Cumberbatch is thoroughly enjoyable as the perpetually awkward and often abrasive Turing. He and Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (making his English-language feature debut) find a way to milk gentle laughs out of his social shortcomings without diminishing his dignity.
He is, in other words, Just Weird Enough as a character to warrant the attention of Academy Awards voters.
A large chunk of the second and third acts finds Cumberbatch and Knightley engaged in a delicate dance; both want something from the other but secrets get in the way.
Again, Tyldum finds a way into the poignant heart of the relationship without drenching it in sentimentality.
A strong supporting cast, including Matthew Goode as crypto-analyst Hugh Alexander, Mark Strong as spymaster Stewart Menzies and Charles Dance as head of the codebreaking unit Alastair Denniston, are given tragically little screen time.