It's an undeniable pleasure to dig into a crackling spy thriller dished out by experts. The Imitation Game is an immersive true story that laces dizzying tension with raw emotion. Benedict Cumberbatch, an Emmy winner for Sherlock Holmes, turns on the brainpower again to play Alan Turing, a genius mathematician and social misfit who teamed up with a handful of cryptanalysts at London's Bletchley Park during World War II to crack the Nazis' naval code and help win the war. That he did, only to see his achievements buried in government secrecy and to end his own life in 1954 after being persecuted for the then-crime of homosexuality. The queen pardoned him posthumously last year. Talk about too little, too late.
And yet The Imitation Game doesn't dawdle over the spilled milk of social treachery. The roguish script by newcomer Graham Moore alleviates the feel of a musty period piece. And Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) directs with masterly assurance, fusing suspense and character to create a movie that vibrates with energy.
The film's prime force is Cumberbatch, a great actor whose talent shines here on its highest beams. It's an explosive, emotionally complex performance. An early scene in which Turing, 27, interviews for a job at Bletchley with Commander Dennison (Charles Dance, doing smug to a turn) is wonderfully comic as Turing gains the upper hand. The commander retaliates by hiring chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) to head the unit, which includes John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard). Turing later persuades Winston Churchill to put him in charge of his perceived inferiors. He's more amenable to Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the only woman in the unit. Knightley is terrific, giving a supporting role major dimensions. It's sharply poignant to watch these two delude themselves into considering marriage.
The action ignites when, after two years of effort, Turing invents his Enigma-busting machine, a proto-computer geared to break a code that the Nazis change every 24 hours. It's been a long time since intellectual sparring created such excitement onscreen. I've heard a few critics dismiss this mind-bender as hopelessly old-hat. Ha! If so, long live retro.