BREAK FOR AN ENIGMA
Benedict Cumberbatch makes a feast of his role as the troubled but brilliant mathematician who broke the German World War II code
Playing characters like Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange and Stephen Hawking, Benedict Cumberbatch has accumulated a filmography littered with high IQs.
Characters of analytical prowess and fast-deducting intellect have made Cumberbatch something like the ultimate quicksilver mind of the digital age. No actor has made computation sexier.
Cumberbatch, relaxing in a Toronto hotel room, quickly points out that he has – like his spineless plantation owner of 12 Years a Slave or his painfully shy son in August: Osage County – played some “pretty dull, ordinary” people: “Let’s say us. I’ve done us, version of me and you,” he says.
And yet Cumberbatch is clearly drawn to highly complex, real-life characters under extraordinary circumstances, roles that demand technical preparation (an accent, a stammer), considerable biographical research and a precision of approach. Puzzles to be solved.
“Maybe that’s a fair one,” he says, turning over the idea. “Maybe I do. I think for the reasons people are attracted to those characters, as well. You can never fully understand them. There’s always a certain amount of enigma or mystery to them.”
Cumberbatch’s latest riddle is Alan Turing, a hugely important figure to World War II code-breaking and a computer science pioneer.
The Imitation Game, which opens today, is about how Turing and others at Britain’s Bletchley Park solved the seemingly unbreakable Enigma code used by the Germans during World War II.
Winston Churchill said Turing made the single greatest contribution to the war, but his achievement wasn’t widely recognised until recently, when the work was declassified.
The Imitation Game is only partly a traditional wartime thriller. It’s also a tragedy of social close-mindedness.
Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. He was convicted of indecency in 1952 and then chemically castrated. Two years later, at 41, he killed himself by eating a cyanidelaced apple (debate remains about his intention).
“I see somebody who was tragically damaged and continually battered by an intolerant, non-understanding world, the very world he was trying to save and liberate from fascism,” says Cumberbatch.
The Imitation Game, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore, is a kind of ode to outsiders.
Cumberbatch’s Turing isn’t just different because of his sexuality, he’s utterly antisocial. His Bletchley collaborators included Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a rare female in that world.
Knightley, a friend of Cumberbatch’s since they worked on Atonement, calls him the sort of actor who never tries to simplify anything.
“If it’s a complex person, he wants to dive into all the complexities and try to get all the nuances out,” Knightley says. “You completely believe him in any of these roles, whether it’s Assange, Stephen Hawking, whoever. He’s very intelligent, but he’s got a curiosity you can see and it sort of burns through his performances.”
With no footage to draw from for Turing’s manner and speech, Cumberbatch met with his relatives. The actor began many of his days jogging. (Turing was an elite runner) and worked at crafting a plausible stutter for the awkward mathematician.
After The Imitation Game, the 38-year-old Brit, who recently announced his engagement to Sophie Hunter, is ready for a simpler equation.
“I’ve done evil. I’ve done good. I’ve done smart,” says Cumberbatch. “I haven’t done much sexy, sexy, really. I’d like to do a romantic comedy.”
Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch and Allen Leech in a scene from
The Imitation Game.