‘The Imitation Game’ and the Intellectual Charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch

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There’s a pivotal scene in the new film The Imitation Game that tells us much about star Benedict Cumberbatch’s appeal. The setup: in the thick of WWII, a brilliant mathematician named Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) heads up a team of codebreakers tasked with cracking the Nazi Enigma code. To do so, Turing has been granted £100,000 to build an elaborate machine for the job — in essence, the first computer. And like most computers, it doesn’t really work. With the Allies losing ground and a bitter commander breathing down their necks, Turing and his team finally have a breakthrough. The scene is masterfully energetic, but there’s more to it than that; it’s borderline erotic.

(Consider this a spoiler alert, as this is a climactic moment, but certainly not the end of the picture — and let’s face it, if the machine didn’t eventually work, they wouldn’t bloody well have made a movie about it, now would they?)

The breakthrough comes at an unexpected moment, as these things so often do in the moving pictures. Turing and his team, which includes handsome cad Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and brainy beauty Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), are in a bar, having a few beers after another dispiriting day of not breaking the Nazi code. Hugh, attempting to pick up one of Joan’s pretty friends, engages her in a conversation about her job transcribing coded messages. She makes an offhand comment about consistencies within those messages that trips a switch for Turing; he suddenly realizes what they’ve been doing wrong, and how to do it right.

The team members crouch over their desks, finding coded messages, feeding them into the computer and then into the Engima using their new key. The interactions of the group are thrilling — the back and forth, interaction, and one-upmanship have a specific, almost sexual energy to them, particularly when Turing and Clarke are working together. She says each letter, he says it back, and their minds and voices tune to each other. “There was like a rhythm we got into,” William Hurt says in Broadcast News. “It was like great sex.”

There’s a catch, of course. This is probably the closest Turing and Clarke will ever come to great sex, because Turing is gay. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma) tell Turing’s story via three intertwining narratives: the dominant story of the breaking of the Enigma, his boarding school years and his first lost love, and the events of a decade or so later, when he was investigated by Manchester police and convicted of “gross indecency.”

Turing has the kind of tortured brilliance that actors love to play: next-level intelligent, antisocial, impatient, uncommunicative. Even the other characters acknowledge it; Hugh sneers about his “irascible genius routine,” but you can’t really blame him for not exactly warming to a man who says of his colleagues, “I don’t have time to explain myself and I’m afraid these men would only slow me down.” He does take a shine to Joan (savvily played by Knightley as a woman who knows what her “place” is supposed to be, yet can’t resist the little gleam she gets from besting her male contemporaries), and she assumes, not unreasonably, that it is a shine borne out of attraction.

You can’t blame her; they certainly have chemistry, of a sort. But, their eventual engagement of convenience notwithstanding, it’s an entirely intellectual connection. Yet here’s what’s interesting about Turing as a character and Cumberbatch as an actor: he makes that intellectualism so attractive that it becomes all-encompassing. The way he chews on the script’s scientific and philosophical speeches fits well within a pattern of characters who make braininess sexy and appealing.

And understanding that quality is key to understanding his rabid fandom, which approaches Belieber-level intensity, yet with a very different set of criteria. He is, after all, not what you might call conventionally handsome — “It’s like someone tried to draw a handsome face, but the eyes are a little too small, the cheekbones are too big, the mouth is too big,” as entertainment writer Meghan O’Keefe told the New York Daily News, kind of nailing it — and his name sounds like a punchline from Eddie Izzard’s “naming Engelbert Humperdink” bit. But the roles that he chooses (Turing, Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, Star Trek’s Khan) share with the actor a common thread of characters who are not only defined by their intelligence, but charismatic because of it.

Stardom is not just about the skill of a performer, the serendipity of their timing, or their aesthetic pleasantness. It’s also about knowing what your audience expects. Maybe Cumberbatch has it in him to play a slow-witted dullard, or a monosyllabic man of action. But he’s smart enough to know that now is not the time for experimentation. He carries this intelligence with him from role to role, like Jennifer Lawrence’s likability or Tommy Lee Jones’ gruffness, and it allows each character to start with a set of expectations, and work forward from there. In the case of The Imitation Game, that specific quality helps elevate what could’ve been a rote boilerplate biopic into a film with the spark of a live wire.

The Imitation Game is out Friday in limited release.