Benedict Cumberbatch unlocks the secrets of the tragic genius who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code in this gripping biopic of World War Two cryptographer Alan Turing.

THE IMITATION GAME Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

‘Are you paying attention?’ asks Benedict Cumberbatch’s protagonist at the start of The Imitation Game, but there’s no risk of our being anything but rapt during this gripping biopic of mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing, the genius who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma code and paved the way for modern computing, but fell tragically foul of the era’s institutional homophobia less than a decade after his wartime triumph.

Adapted from Andrew Moore’s 1983 biography, the film passes back and forth between three periods in Turing’s life: his unhappy time at boarding school in the 1920s; wartime at Bletchley Park; and the 1950s, when a dogged police officer played by Rory Kinnear digs into his life following a suspicious burglary at his Manchester home; the event that precipitated Turing’s arrest for homosexuality in 1952 and his suicide two years later.

Sensitively handled by director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and screenwriter Graham Moore, the framing portions of the film are fully absorbing in themselves, but it’s the Bletchley Park years that have truly compelling, lapel-grabbing urgency.

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Spellbinding brilliance

We see Cumberbatch’s Turing recruited by the British government for its top-secret code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park, and quickly rubbing the top brass the wrong way with his indifference to rules and hierarchy.

Charles Dance’s bristling, ramrod straight naval commander Denniston is chief among his antagonists and Keira Knightley’s bluestocking brainbox Joan Clarke his principal ally during the thrilling race against time to break the Germans’ Enigma cipher.

In the face of official obduracy, this Turing does by means of an electro-mechanical machine, or ‘bombe’, a precursor of the modern computer, which he names Christopher after the solitary friend of his schooldays.

It’s Turing himself, of course, who is the story’s biggest enigma, and Cumberbatch’s performance unlocks his secrets with spellbinding brilliance. Some have pointed out a kinship between his Turing and his Sherlock Holmes, both of them anti-social geniuses with possibly autistic traits. It’s an easy comparison to make but does Cumberbatch’s performance a disservice: his brilliant, prickly, arrogant, anguished Turing is very much his own man.

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Certificate 12A. Runtime 114 mins. Director Morten Tyldum.