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Telluride Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Carries Uneven WWII Drama ‘The Imitation Game’

Telluride Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Carries Uneven WWII Drama 'The Imitation Game'

The movies love to remind us that brilliant minds are often the most tortured. Far be it from Morten Tyldum to suggest any differently in “The Imitation Game,” a World War II procedural detailing the efforts of cryptanalyst Alan Turing and his mathematically-inclined underlings to decrypt the Nazis’ famed Enigma machine and turn the tides in England’s favor. There’s more than one way to become a wartime casualty, however, and their secret office is its own sort of front line.

As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is a genius in the “The Social Network” and “A Beautiful Mind” mold: brilliant but utterly lacking interpersonal skills, with an added dash of Drax the Destroyer’s literal-minded humorlessness. Perpetually stone-faced, he’s frequently lost in thought at the expense of those trying to reach him on even the most basic level; it’s to the movie’s credit that there’s no hokey attempt at visualizing his brilliance via superimposed swirls and flashes of light, as is often done in films of this sort.

Even in his most intimate, wrenching scenes, Turing is at a remove from both the audience and the people working alongside him. Rather than frustrate, this distance serves to underscore his status as a double outsider — in addition to possibly having Asperger syndrome, Turing was a homosexual, something the film reveals in an off-the-cuff manner befitting the man’s personality. It deeply affects him, but not in a way he’s willing to show the world.

Through flashbacks that also show his first love, the film links Turing’s preternatural cryptographic abilities to his inability to fully grasp the nuances of verbal communication. (“How is that different from talking?” a young Turing asks after his closest friend explains the coded nature of messages that say one thing but mean another.) As these pieces fall into place, Turing becomes ever more sympathetic while still feeling beyond anyone’s grasp to help or even understand.

Still, the misunderstood genius constantly proving naysayers and half-wits wrong is a trope that probably peaked with “The Social Network.” When we hear a superior officer blatantly set Turing up with a chance to display his intellectual dominance for a cheap laugh, it feels like needlessly stacking the deck. Cumberbatch handles this and other tired conventions with aplomb, sliding effortlessly into a role that practically demands to be overacted. It’s a reserved, almost conservative performance, and in holding so much back so much of the time, Cumberbatch makes his few outward displays of emotion far more impactful.

As Turing’s colleague/eventual wife Joan Clarke, Keira Knightley does exceptional work in a role that could have easily been expanded — much of her screen time is spent humanizing Turing by showing his capacity for non-romantic love and affection despite her IQ coming closer to his than anyone else’s. Her brilliance isn’t her defining characteristic, as Turing’s is, but Knightley joins her co-star in maximizing a familiar, even underwritten role.

The aftereffects of eventually cracking the Nazis’ code is described by Turing as “blood-soaked calculus”: a utilitarian decision-making process that weighs the number of potential Allied lives saved against the possibility of Germany realizing their Enigma machine has been decrypted and immediately reprogramming it, thus undoing years of painstaking work.

One scene in which a member of Turing’s team is personally affected by one of these actuarial choices notwithstanding, Tyldum doesn’t show the depths of this moral reckoning as much as he could have. A few math experts sit in a room debating whether or not saving a ship full of civilians is worth it if it means losing the war. Call it the banality of good.

Grade: B-

“The Imitation Game” premiered this week at the Telluride Film Festival. The Weinstein Company will release it in November.

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Michael I

I suppose his suicide was "off the cuff" as befitting his personality


The reviewer appears to have nodded off during the film, seems to have missed the underlying tragedy and the true meaning of the imitation game.


I can see you didn’t understand the film.


Did I miss something? I thought the text of this review was quite favorable, with small reservations. So I don’t understand how we get down to B-. Was a negative paragraph dropped?

Carl from California

I prefer to make my own assessment of a film. It appears that the reviewer considers any physical or mental condition to be a "trope," and that this is somehow disallowed as a judge of the acting. While the author is perfectly entitled to his opinions, his view might not reflect what other people come away from the film with. This is a complex character, and deserves more than a cursory glimpse to "pass judgement."


"The banality of good." Great coinage! I’d like to read a whole essay just contrasting that idea w/ Arendt’s original. Maybe the banality of it explains why so few people ARE good these days.


The muted enthusiasm of the review is, frankly, what I got from watching the trailer. I’m still going to see it, but these attacks on the reviewer (apparently because he is not ecstatic about the film) are ridiculous.


Really, I wonder if your review is genuine. Do you tell people to stop going to Paris to see the Eiffel tour, because you know, Las Vegas has a miniature copy of it. And also Clark was never his wife, only his fiancee.. Did you by any chance slept during the film?

Barb Dignan

Oops. I changed the wording of the second sentence and should have put a semi-colon where the comma is. Sorry about that.

Barb Dignan

He and Joan never married. Alan Turing proposed to Joan Clarke, he told her he was homosexual and withdrew his proposal.


Despicable to criticise the portrayal of Turing with Asperger’s as a "trope", to effect, because it’s been done before. Do you think having Asperger’s is a joke? You are quite staggeringly offensive and you should be hanging your head in shame!

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