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‘The Imitation Game’: Benedict Cumberbatch makes an irritating genius endearing

One of the best things about this time of the year for film lovers is the arrival of a “fifth season.” It’s that period when Hollywood studios wait to release the year’s best movie offerings to maximize their chances for nominations and awards.

A great example is “The Imitation Game,” Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s outstanding, beautifully nuanced, first English-language film.

For many years, the story presented here was genuinely a state secret: the long-hidden true tale of intrigue surrounding the Allies’ — specifically Britain’s — quiet campaign to break the Nazis’ “Enigma” code. Today, we know it was that successful code-breaking effort, and the troop movements it unearthed, that played an enormous role in the defeat of Germany in World War II.

Central to all of this was the part played by one brilliant, complicated and extremely difficult man: Alan Turing. Lacking in social skills, Turing was tapped to lead an eclectic group of fellow “brains” to break the code — and in the process developed a machine that, in many ways, was a forerunner of what we today call computers.

Just as Turing toiled ceaselessly to build his machine to break Enigma, so too has Tyldum crafted a phenomenal film — with all the pieces of a complicated puzzle put together in such a way that the story flows seamlessly.

We’re really looking at three significant periods in Turing’s life: some tense moments between Turing and a police officer in 1951; his lonely childhood in a upper-class British boarding school in the 1930s, and then the crux of the movie — the war years.

Chicago native Graham Moore’s screenplay (for his first produced film) and Tyldum’s even-handed direction tie it all together in an easily understandable, concise package that lays the groundwork for incredible performances.

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The film works as well as it does due to the genius of Benedict Cumberbatch and the way he has inhabited Alan Turing’s persona. Both physically and with that hard-to-describe aura great actors exhibit, Cumberbatch captures Turing’s social awkwardness, largely brought about by the repression of his homosexuality, then considered a crime in Great Britain and much of the world.

Yet as Cumberbatch’s Turing continually offends and irritates the characters in his mid-20th century world, the actor’s interpretation of the role draws us in — making him empathetic and oddly endearing. Of course, we’re blown away by Turing’s brilliant mind and the way he mentally runs circles around those he is forced to work with in Britain’s codebreaking scheme. But we can’t help but feel sorry for him as we are shown his grossly unhappy childhood and the way his social failures create so many roadblocks to him ever finding a friend.

While Cumberbatch delivers a performance likely to earn him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for best actor, he is also fortunate to be surrounded by quite the outstanding troupe of fellow players — especially Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, the only woman deemed smart enough to make the cut in Turing’s team of codebreakers. Kudos also to the excellent performances delivered by Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance and Mark Strong.

While entertaining us and touching our hearts with the singular and ultimately tragic story of Alan Turing, the film honors the importance of scientific research and mathematical study.

Yet, along with Tyldum’s great pacing that turns this brainiac exercise into a real wartime thriller, the beautiful cinematography of Oscar Faura and Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score, this film’s overall success hangs on Cumberbatch and what is, to date, his finest performance on the big screen.

“The Imitation Game” is one of the real must-see films of this “fifth season.”

[s3r star=4/4]

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.