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Jack English, The Weinstein Company
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in “The Imitation Game.”

0Benedict Cumberbatch has defined himself playing uptight, eccentric characters with superiority complexes. Whether he’s channeling the legendary Sherlock Holmes on the BBC’s “Sherlock” or offering a new interpretation of Khan Noonien Singh in last year’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” he brings a peculiar and unmistakable authority to his roles.

Cumberbatch’s character in “The Imitation Game” holds many of those previous traits, but the role is an impressive leap in the actor’s craft, perhaps enough to get Oscar consideration.

“The Imitation Game” recounts the true story of Alan Turing, the gifted mathematician who broke the German Enigma code during World War II. The story of that effort is compelling by itself, but “The Imitation Game” is more of a portrait of Turing than a mere retelling of his contribution to history.

The narrative jumps between three story lines.

We spend most of our time with Turing and his team as they work during the war. At first, Turing is a tolerated outcast among the other brilliant minds recruited by the British military for the project. Every day they desperately sort through millions upon millions of code combinations to try to decode intercepted messages, but by midnight their work goes to waste as the Enigma’s settings are readjusted worldwide.

The team hates Turing, both for his social backwardness and for the fact that he is clearly more gifted than any of them. Rather than sweat away each day in a hopeless routine, Turing devises another plan: build a machine to sweat away for them.

As the team works on the Enigma project, flashbacks take us to Turing’s youth in school. It is here where, played effectively by Alex Lawther, we see the roots of Turing’s social alienation and the foreboding impact of his friendship with a boy named Christopher (Jack Bannon).

The flashbacks also tie into the third major timeline in “The Imitation Game,” which follows Turing in the 1950s, years after the war, when he was prosecuted for being a homosexual. Homosexual activity was illegal at the time in England, and in combination with the top-secret nature of his war activities, Turing’s circumstances create a public quagmire.

Cumberbatch is front and center throughout the film, expertly delivering a performance that digs far deeper than many of his celebrated characters. He also benefits from a strong supporting cast, including Keira Knightley, Mark Strong and Charles Dance.

When we see him after the war, Cumberbatch plays Turing as a wizened but embittered character — much more confident than the brilliant but awkward young man he was during World War II, and emboldened by his disgust at the world around him.

It’s a distant figure from who Turing was during the project. In fact, according to the film, Turning might never have stuck around for its finish if it weren’t for the support and guidance of Joan Clarke (Knightley), the only female member of the team.

“The Imitation Game” works on many levels. It is fascinating as a character study, and watching Turing wrestle with the combined forces of his own intellect, his crippling social backwardness, and his romantic feelings is both riveting and tragic.

But the film also works as a thriller, simply for the twists and turns of the story of how Turing’s team solved the Enigma and then learned that solving the machine only brought them to the start of a much more difficult challenge.

Comment on this story

The subject matter is likely to provoke strong feelings from audiences, and to his credit, Cumberbatch’s performance reflects the complexity of an issue that is much more in the public eye today. The actor's previous characters have been memorable, but this effort is genuinely impressive.

Altogether, “The Imitation Game” is a film that will give you plenty to think about.

“The Imitation Game” is rated PG-13 for intense subject matter and violence, sexual themes, some vulgar dialogue and profanity.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.