Benedict Cumberbatch knows about games. Spring-boarding to superstardom as BBC’s Sherlock, he’s certainly familiar with games being afoot, but in The Imitation Game, he teaches us all about how the Game of Life is not always fair. Alan Turing is a name that should not just be familiar to most, but be held up alongside – and arguably even above – far more popular progenitors of tech-obsessed modern society, and yet, for the longest time he was almost completely unknown by the general public.

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So who was Turing? Well, if you’re reading this on a computer of any kind, then he’s the man who you have to thank for that technological privilege. The mathematics and cryptography genius never set out to build a machine on which you can read the ramblings of a 34-year old film geek with too much time on his hands (or spend hours looking at videos of cats) though. No, his initial goal was nothing short of winning the Second World War by devising a method of cracking Enigma, the uncrackable encryption machine used by Nazi Germany to encode/decode their communications.

The Imitation Game is the remarkable story of how Turing and his team of fellow geniuses went about trying to accomplish that herculean task, but told simultaneously across three different eras of Turing’s life – as a young boy at boarding school, during the height of his WWII efforts, and in the early 1950’s when a robbery at Turing’s home sets into motion a series of dramatic events –  it’s also the story of the man behind one of mankind’s most impressive technological feats.

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Simultaneously a cracking WWII spy thriller, a riveting (if occasionally inaccurate) history lesson on one of modern society’s most influential but criminally unsung personalities, and a stirring commentary on social prejudices as it tackles Turing’s homosexuality in a time when it was illegal, The Imitation Game certainly sounds like an unruly handful for any filmmaker. But performing a balancing act so masterful that you would swear he was dressed in a sequined leotard under the big top, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) ensures that every frame is of import, every scene adds to the tapestry of Turing’s life, and the film continuously captures and keeps your attention whether it be through heartbroken drama or adventures and intrigue. Oh and laughs.

My biggest criticism of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, another WWII-set biopic of an extraordinary individual achieving greatness in the face of impossible odds, was the monotone of misery that engulfs most of its second and third acts. Showing himself a much more intuitive hand behind the camera, Tyldum knows exactly when to insert just enough levity to avoid leaving the the audience brow-beaten, but never so much as to undercut the seriousness of not only what Turing achieved, but more importantly what was done to him by his own government despite his achievements.

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And embodying that thematic dichotomy is Cumberbatch’s Oscar-nominated performance as Turing. The mathematician, with his lack of social wiles, odd habits and cocksure demeanour, was a hodge-podge of abrasiveness and awkward charm, and Cumberbatch deftly walks that fine tight-rope line of raising his on-screen compatriots’ hackles at the same time as eliciting sympathy from the audience. But as sorry as you feel for him, never does the performance devolve into emotionally blackmailing treacle. It’s a highly nuanced, very physical showing laden with drama, tragedy and intelligence, aided by bursts of infectious wit, and which should net Cumberbatch armloads of awards.

He’s also helped out by a charming support cast led by a delightfully strong performance by  Keira Knightley as Turing’s companion in life and maths (and female cryptographic pioneer), Joan Clarke, and a silk-smooth Matthew Goode as man-about-town and fellow cryptographer, Hugh Alexander. Also rounding out the principal cast are Charles Dance and Mark Strong with expectantly solid, occasionally scene-stealing turns.

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Graham Moore’s 2011 Black List topping script makes sure that all of these characters get their due, but if there was one slight on it, it’s that the rest of Turing’s team tend to be mostly relegated to nameless background props until they’re suddenly shoved into the spotlight to raise a necessary plot point before disappearing again. Where Moore’s script – aided by some spot-on editing from William Goldberg – really excels though, is in how it interweaves the three timelines so that themes and revelations from scenes in one era dramatically impact the immediately adjacent scenes set in a different era. It also pulls off the difficult task of making Turing’s homosexuality and the effects thereof critical to this story, but not the central focus around which it all revolves.

Moore’s script does take several, rather looming liberties with historical facts though, as these things sometime do, but the tale being told keeps you so endlessly engaged – both intellectually and emotionally – through its 114-minutes running time, that these factual dramatizations can easily be overlooked.

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What can’t be overlooked is just how well Tyldum, Cumberbatch and co – much like with the actual Enigma, where seemingly incomprehensible data is entered in one end and revelation is returned on the other – line up all The Imitation Game‘s many moving parts and turn what could have been a starched history lesson at best or a tone-deaf social witch hunt at worst into my (very) early frontrunner for the best movie of 2015.

The Imitation Game opens in theatres nationwide on Friday January 23, 2015.

Last Updated: January 20, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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