I could watch Benedict Cumberbatch read from the phone book and enjoy myself. I love the blend of quirky genius and nerdy awkwardness he shows in Sherlock. I also adore the unabashed goofiness of his countless appearances on awards shows and TV (This clip of celebrity impressions is one of my favorites). But I have to be honest and admit that I haven’t seen many of his most famous movies, such as The Fifth Estate and Hawking. When I get to the movies, it’s usually to see something my 10-year-old daughter will enjoy, not high brow, intellectual “cinema.” So when I had the chance to see a grownup movie recently, I chose The Imitation Game for the chance to see Cumberbatch in action.
Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a British mathematician who helped crack Nazi Germany’s most complicated code during World War II. Using ideas far ahead of his time, he created a machine that allowed the Allied forces to decipher Nazi messages and anticipate attacks, saving thousands of lives and, experts say, shortening the war by years. But Turing had a secret, one that would not only embarrass him in the repressed times in which he lived, but could make him a criminal: he was gay. Although his work during the war was nothing short of heroic, he was condemned after the war for his sexuality, publicly humiliated and forced to undergo chemical castration (hormone therapy that made him impotent). He committed suicide in 1954.
As expected, Cumberbatch was brilliant. He makes you feel that Turing’s arrogant pursuit of his ideas is justified, his social awkwardness is endearing, and his persecution is beyond unfair. Keira Knightley gives one of her best performances as Joan Clarke, a lone woman on the code-breaking team who is Turing’s biggest ally and, for a brief time, his fiancee. Together, they make the work of the code-breakers feel as important, and dangerous, as that of any soldier on the front lines.
In the past decade, the British government declassified Turing’s work, giving him the respect and recognition he long deserved. The government also apologized for prosecuting him for being gay. Still, his story is one I had never come across, which is incredibly sad when you think of the influence his work had. (The code-breaking machine he invented led to the development of a little something you may have heard of, the computer)
While not exactly light, “feel-good” fare, The Imitation Game is a moving and thought-provoking film worth seeing. It sheds light on a little-known aspect of World War II while also exploring what it means to be different. Whether it was for his sexuality or his abrasive genius that rubbed many of his colleagues the wrong way, Turing lived most of his life as an outcast. Most of us can relate to feeling like a misfit at one time or another. But the message of the film, repeated by several different characters, is inspiring: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”