The Imitation Game: Cumberbatch’s most complex performance?

World War II was not won by superior numbers, military nous, or even dumb luck. It was won by mathematicians and spies, according to The Imitation Game, the latest film starring Britain’s secret weapon of the acting world, Benedict Cumberbatch. (A man many have described as our generation’s Sir Laurence Olivier.)

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We begin, like a lot of careers do, with a job interview. An Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) aged 27, already a Fellow at Cambridge at 22, gets off to a bad start being interviewed by Commandar Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance). Turing is aloof, arrogant, slightly wet and drippy, immensely intelligent, but with godawful interpersonal skills and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

Denniston takes an instant dislike to him and shows him the door, at which point Turing says ‘Enigma, that’s what you’re working on isn’t it?’ And just when Denniston thinks he has Turing figured out, the tide turns. Much of this is down to Cumberbatch. He’s 38 years old and getting better with every role he takes. This could well be his best, most nuanced, complex and satisfying performance (in film) so far.

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To return to the plot a moment, with the Nazis winning the war and their Enigma-encrypted messages making the Allies’ job of stopping them particularly difficult, Denniston puts together a team of codebreakers and mathematicians, with the help of the Chief of MI6, Sir Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong).

The team is led by chess champion, the sauve and debonair Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) who, like seemingly everyone else, takes an instant dislike to Turing, his inclusion in the team, and the fact he refuses to work with the rest of them, spending his time tinkering with his designs for his own machine to beat Enigma.

Realising he won’t get anywhere with these tactics, Turing goes above Denniston’s head to Winston Churchill, who promptly puts him in charge of the whole team and provides him ample funding to build his machine. Turing then fires half the team and recruits new talent, including brainiac Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom he begins to form a close bond as they work together.

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Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who directed the excellent Headhunters in 2011), this film jumps around in time, giving us glimpses of Turing’s childhood, and his life after the war, including issues around his sexuality. Whilst the time skips can come thick and fast on occasion, they are never jarring, and help build up a succinct picture of Turing and how his drive and focus to achieve great things ultimately led to him cracking Enigma.

We also get to see his human side, as the film devotes a significant amount of time to his relationship with Joan, and how she helps him bond with his colleagues. In this respect great credit should go to Knightley. She often plays strong, glamorous parts. Here she uses her inherent geekiness to good effect, making Joan seem likeable, accessible and caring, particularly when it comes to dealing with an erratic Turing.

I’ve read that DiCaprio was originally attached to play the lead role. I just cannot see how that would have worked. Granted he’s a fine actor (and he’s already played oddball Howard Hughes, so he’s got form), but he’s just a bit too handsome and, well… American. It had to be a British actor playing this role surely?

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And Cumberbatch’s performance will be talked about for a long time to come. He thoroughly inhabits the character of Turing. Stammering, stuttering, hanging his head, lowering his eyes, letting his lower lip form a weak mouth, his physical performance was engrossing from start to finish.

Surely the sort that should have Oscar written all over it?

All in all, for a film which largely involves writing equations on a blackboard and scribbling on little bits of paper – basically maths – it is tense, exciting, well paced and packed with fine performances, including a truly special one from Cumberbatch. It charts an important part of British (and modern) history and, even if you’re not an card-carrying member of the Cumberbitches, this should be on your ‘to watch’ list in the near future.

Secret State – proper thriller or nothing new?

Talk about a mixed reaction to the first episode of Channel 4’s four-part political conspiracy thriller Secret State. Some critics think it’s pretty good, others have torn it apart.

Me? I sit somewhere in the middle, probably more on the positive side. Despite the plot being a little predictable at times, it’s well shot and Gabriel Byrne (Deputy Prime Minister) is a compelling lead, with a solid supporting cast including: Charles Dance (Chief Whip with dark motives?), Gina McKee (suspiciously well informed reporter), Douglas Hodge (alcoholic ex-MI5 chief turned private investigator).

Setting the scene
Based on the book A Very British Coup, the story begins in the aftermath of an explosion at a US petrochemical site in Teeside, which results in the death of 19 people. After securing compensation for the families whose loved ones died in the explosion, the Prime Minister’s plane suspiciously crashes on a flight back from the US and he dies.

Dawkins (Byrne) reluctantly assumes leadership and promises justice for the victims’ families. As he pressures the petrochemical company to make good on their compensation promise, he begins to make discoveries of a conspiratorial nature that lie at the heart of Government.

channel 4 thrillerSuspicion abound!
Within the first 20 minutes or so, it becomes abundantly clear that nearly every major character has hidden/murky motives. We’d expect nothing less from a conspiracy thriller right?

It does feel that plot points are contrived at times. Characters like McKee’s reporter pop up at key moments with teasing information to divulge.

Everyone appears to be watching everyone – GCHQ are listening intently to the PM, the order coming from someone ‘very senior’. My money is on Chief Whip (Dance) who’s clearly up to something – he always is. His gravestone should read, ‘Born to scheme’. Ahem, let’s move on.

I understand why people expect thrillers to deliver on every level these days, they’re up against wise, old dogs – State of Play, Edge of Darkness – and keen, new youngsters – Homeland.

A proper PM
Ladies love a bit of Byrne right? He’s great casting. Calm, decisive, authoritative, charismatic, knowledgeable – everything you’d expect from a leader. You get the sense he’s on the back-foot initially, but his Irish fire will kick in and he’ll tear into those that oppose him. At least, that’s my hope.

Numerous references get made to his military background. It would be great to see him bring righteousness to the political arena. A biblical PM, delivering great vengeance and furious anger against his conspirators, Pulp Fiction style. Too much?

The long game
In terms of the London setting and production values, it’s visually impressive. Great shots of Whitehall and the corridors of power. The score is suitably tense, although perhaps stolen from the Bourne films?

I imagine many characters will reveal their true motives as things progress. Despite some shortfalls in terms of giving the audience too many ‘standard conspiracy’ elements, it’s worth sticking with this show. It’s only a four-parter, so probably best judging at the end.

I’ve seen two episodes and it’s shaping up well. Not an instant classic, but worth your time. If nothing else than to imagine what it’d be like if Byrne was PM. Now that would be thrilling.