Comes now the second highly-touted drama of 2014 about gifted British academic geniuses who contributed enormously to 20th century scientific knowledge. The Theory ofEverything explored the life of cosmologist Stephen Hawkins and featured an evocative performance by Eddie Redmayne in movie that teetered dangerously on a saccharine edge in its final reel. Now Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and novice screenwriter Graham Moore have adapted Andrew Hodges’ book about the cracking of Germany’s secret military communications code by a small group of British intellectuals. Of the two, it’s much the better film.
Acting wunderkind Benedict Cumberbatch provides a painfully sympathetic portrait of Alan Turing, the shy, socially awkward mathematician/logician chosen to head England’s top-secret effort to neutralize Enigma, the nickname given the German device that allowed its military commanders to transmit vital information without fear of detection.
Using a series of occasionally distracting flashbacks, Tyldum’s highly talented cast (Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Charles Dance) convert what might otherwise have been a rather dry exploration of the complexities of decryption into a wonderfully suspenseful thriller. But what gives the movie its strength and depth is the director’s decision allowing Cumberbatch to provide a nuanced and sympathetic presentation of a gifted man destroyed by the criminalization of his sexual orientation.
Cumberbatch has portrayed articulate, constricted men any number of times in his already extensive career (Parade’s End,The Last Enemy, Atonement) and he employs torso, voice and averted eye contact here to capture a man at war with himself and unintentionally those around him. Oblivious to the simplest of social conventions, he employs arrogance to keep others at arm’s length, lest they inflict more of the humiliating abuse he suffered throughout his lonely childhood and adolescence. Cumberbatch delivers a performance that captures Turing’s quirky behavior while simultaneously giving audiences a tortured man who bravely transcended his own vulnerability in order to unravel Enigma’s capacities, in the process laying the groundwork for much of the technology that permitted the development of computers in the second half of the 20th century.
But his accomplishments were bedeviled by the secrecy which surrounded his work and the homophobic British legal system which criminalized his sexual orientation long past the time when society should have known better. The criminal statistics which add a footnote to the life of this brilliant recluse provide a disturbing reminder of American attitudes on homosexuality, which didn’t significantly change until the so-called stonewall riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village sparking this country’s gay liberation movement. By then, Turing was dead, not to be given a posthumous pardon by the Queen until 1993. By its end, Tyldum’s exciting yet biting critique of the greatest accomplishment of this gifted loner becomes a powerful demand for sexual equality.
The Verdict? An exciting drama with an outstanding lead performance and a denouement that challenges all-too-prevalent latent prejudices.
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