TORONTO—Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t take his portrayal of brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing lightly.
It seems truly important to the actor that his representation of the man in the gripping drama “The Imitation Game” enlighten audiences about the pivotal role Turing had in hastening the end of the Second World War.
“In comparison to his achievements and how important he is to all of us, and what he achieved in his life, I think he’s relatively unknown,” Cumberbatch said of Turing during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I think we’re doing a good thing by telling this story.”
Turing, now considered the father of the modern-day computer, was critical in breaking the Nazi code during the conflict, but many of his achievements were kept under wraps for years.
The highly intelligent but socially awkward man was prosecuted for homosexuality after the war and is believed to have killed himself after enduring two years of court-ordered chemical castration.
“I think it’s an extraordinary story,” Cumberbatch said. “The reaction people have—’I can’t believe I didn’t know that’—sort of speaks for itself.”
Part thrilling biopic, part commentary on societal prejudices, the film directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore, follows Turing and a group of colleagues as they race, in secret, to break the baffling German Enigma code.
“There’s a huge element of heroics—quiet, subtle, beautiful heroics in what those men and women did in the southeast of England to save an estimated 14 million lives by bringing World War II to an early conclusion,” Cumberbatch said of the real-life events which are brought to the big screen.
Those achievements, particularly Turing’s, only came under the spotlight in recent times, however, with Turing granted a posthumous royal pardon last year.
“He turned everything in his life to our advantage as well as his advantage,” Cumberbatch said. “He never lay down, continued to fight, continued to battle.”
To prepare for his role, Cumberbatch spoke to people who had known Turing and discovered that the often misunderstood man was a complex but compassionate individual.
“In particular what I remember from my research was a technician who told me he was a lovely man to work for,” Cumberbatch recalled. “He wouldn’t make eye contact all the time, but when he did you felt completely held in his gaze. He was very humble, humorous and good company, generous and engaged in listening.”
Turing was also a man who suffered greatly, however, and Cumberbatch’s knowledge of that angst, gleaned through his research, was what he tapped into for his performance.
“It was clear to me that his story was unique even though there were thousands of men who were persecuted in the same era for their homosexuality,” he said.
“What I drew on was everything that happened to him in his life. He was probably far less dramatic, far more humble than what I acted.”
Turing’s story, and a desire to tell it widely, was also what drew Keira Knightley to the film, in which she plays Joan Clarke, Turing’s fellow code-breaker and one-time fiancee.
“I was kind of struck, in all ways, about how relevant the story still is now. Even though it’s such a particular story of that time,” she said.
“The question of prejudice with Alan and how, when prejudice affects government policy, the kind of tragedy that can cause and the brain drain that can happen. I think it’s constantly a conversation that has to be had.”
The film also manages to get at that discussion in “a very human and emotional way,” noted Knightley, which helps audiences connect with the story.
“What you’re always trying to convey is the essence of the story that first struck you. And I was first struck by Alan Turing’s story not from the script but from articles about it and I felt like, and I still feel like, this script really got to the essence of it,” she said.
Lending authenticity to the drama on screen was the real-life connections that developed between cast members on the set of the film, said Matthew Goode, who plays another one of Turing’s colleagues.
“We got to find our relationships quite quickly and then in some way we provided quite a safe environment for Benedict to try a lot of his stuff out,” Goode said.
“The Imitation Game” opens in Toronto on Friday and in cities across Canada later in December.