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'The Imitation Game' review: History's lesser-known story brought to life

Keira Knightley appears in a scene from "The

Keira Knightley appears in a scene from "The Imitation Game." Knightley was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a drama for her role in the film on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Credit: AP / Jack English

When Nazi Germany put its infamous Enigma code machine to use, Allied cryptographers faced defeat. A fiendish combination of rotary wheels and cables, the Enigma was capable of 158 quintillion different settings and defied traditional methods of code-breaking. Trying to unscramble a message using "brute force" -- that is, trying every combination one by one -- would take not just years but decades.

Today, there's probably an app for that, but in the 1940s the computer was virtually unknown outside rarefied circles, and even then it existed mostly as an idea. "The Imitation Game" tells the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who turned the idea into reality and successfully broke the Enigma code, an achievement Winston Churchill called the single biggest contribution to Allied victory. As it happens, Turing was gay. His wartime heroics did not help him when he was prosecuted and chemically castrated for "indecency" in 1952.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing with sensitivity and a kind of affection in "The Imitation Game," a biopic directed by Morten Tyldum from Graham Moore's screenplay. A tragic portrayal would have been easy, but Cumberbatch fashions Turing into a quirky, lively personality, an endearing bundle of arrogance and awkwardness. The film is paced as a race against time as Turing builds his enormous machine -- the forerunner to so many desktop and handheld devices -- but it's Cumberbatch who gives the story a human face. Keira Knightley, as a rare female cryptographer, brightens up the mostly male cast, which includes Mark Strong as an amusingly slippery MI6 agent and Matthew Goode as Turing's roguish colleague Hugh Alexander.

"The Imitation Game," based on Andrew Hodges' book "Alan Turing: The Enigma," tends to over-lionize its underdog hero. By the film's end, Turing seems responsible for just about every bright idea and correct decision in Britain's war effort.

It also glosses over Turing's lack of personal hygiene, though Cumberbatch's greasy hair may be a nod to that. Still, "The Imitation Game" can be excused for giving a little Hollywood polish to a figure so terribly tarnished in real life. Turing was posthumously pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II last year.

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