Benedict breaks the enigma of unlikely war hero

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
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Benedict Cumberbatch makes Alan Turing a surprisingly accessible mystery man in The Imitation Game, says Tony Earnshaw.

The passage of time has been kind to Alan Turing. In the 60 years since his death he has been lauded as the man whose work shortened the Second World War by years and saved an estimated 14 million lives.

In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologised for government treatment of Turing during his lifetime. And in 2012 the Queen posthumously pardoned him.

Turing’s was a complex life. A mathematical genius, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist he was also homosexual at a time when those working within the claustrophobic confines of code-breaking were the target of blackmailers.

Turing wasn’t a spy but he was involved in some of the most crucial work during the war. His personality and its many facets make him an actor’s dream role.

For Benedict Cumberbatch playing the mysterious man who cracked the Germans’ mind-bogglingly intricate Enigma code meant getting to the heart of a human paradox.

Cumberbatch describes Turing variously as a scientist, a father of the modern computer age, a war hero and a man “who lived an uncompromising life in a time of disgusting discrimination”.

And since no audio or visual recording of Turing exists the 38-year-old star relied on research, books and the reminiscences of the remaining Bletchley Park team who knew him.

“It’s a blank canvas,” says Cumberbatch. “So you have a bit of freedom. You have nothing to bounce off as a reflection.

“The idea of getting a broader picture of him out there to a broader audience is something that does bear a certain weight of importance. It’s his legacy. This has been an extraordinary decade for him because of pardons, his centenary, exhibitions, books and now this film. It’s part of a momentum. I hope to have him at the forefront of the recognition he deserves.”

The Imitation Game helps establish Cumberbatch as the British actor most likely to ascend to A-list status and Oscar glory.

His fame has risen steadily but in recent years he has been a mainstay of so many five-star crowd-pleasers from 12 Years a Slave to Star Trek Into Darkness. There is even talk that he was invited onto the set of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens for an uncredited cameo, just for the hell of it. You can do that sort of thing when you’re a star...

It was TV’s 21st century Sherlock Holmes who transformed Cumberbatch into a bona fide heartthrob. That and his precision as an actor. Does he see similarities between Sherlock and Turing?

“Alan doesn’t swish around in a coat with curly hair demonstrating how brilliant he is. He’s a very quiet, stoic, determined, different and definite hero.

“I didn’t read the script and go, ‘Oh, this is Sherlock in tweeds, fiddling around with valves and wires’. I liked the wit of it. I liked how uncompromising he was. But that’s a strong trait in strong characters and they always have an attraction for actors of every variety.”

Turing died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning, allegedly by his own hand. Was it suicide or an accident? Or were darker forces at work?

Cumberbatch has his own theory on Turing’s demise, aged 41. In 1952 he had been prosecuted for indecency. It ended his career and any real prospects he had of continuing in his chosen field.

“His sexuality is something that is contained,” explains Cumberbatch. “That is expressed in the film but not shown explicitly. Neither is there heterosexuality expressed in the film. And so what we show of his behaviour towards his sexuality is sadly true to the story, which is that he had for a large part to suppress it, make it private, make it something secret.

“He didn’t make a political statement out of it. It was a personal thing for him. And while it turned out to be the most tragic strand of his story it is but one strand of his character albeit a very important one. It was really important to me that we got that element of it right.”

There has already been talk of an Oscar nomination for Cumberbatch. He’s wary of such chatter.

“It’s very flattering. Of course, there are a lot of other extraordinary films and performances we haven’t seen yet. More importantly for me, having had some experience with this extraordinary man I really want his story to be a launching point for more knowledge and understanding and a proper celebration of Alan Turing.

“So from that point of view it’s good. If it gets people to see the film, frankly, that is all I care about.”

• The Imitation Game (12A) is on nationwide release.