THE IMITATION GAME (12A)

Verdict: ****

DO NOT adjust your clocks – this brilliant Enigma code-cracking film really is being released in mid-November.

In an unprecedented autumn feast, fellow would-be Oscar contenders Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) are now being followed into cinemas by Benedict Cumberbatch’s own career-best turn as cryptologist Alan Turing.

Born in 1912 and the founding father of computer science, Turing led attempts to crack the Germans’ seemingly unbreakable codes. As if to challenge the odds again, this story is told through three timelines.

We meet Turing after his Manchester flat has been burgled, on the day he walks into his Bletchley Park interview and also as a schoolboy. The blend is flawless, as if Turing himself had worked out how to do it. The Imitation Game relives that race against time to decipher German communications and bring the Second World War to a swift conclusion.

Morten Tyldum’s masterful drama neither shies away from Turing’s homosexuality nor lingers on it, framing nail-biting events at Bletchley Park with the mathematician’s 1951 arrest in Manchester.

The film is never better than when he is confidently deflating the scepticism of the man who will hire him, Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).

Their early verbal sparring sets for the tone for a cleverly heightened exploration of the nature of personal responsibility, the difficulty of making strategic decisions in wartime and how a woman like Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) might have accepted a gay man when society itself was legally prejudiced.

There is fine support from Matthew Goode as fellow cryptologist Hugh Alexander and Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies, whose observations for MI6 saves the plot from becoming too formulaic. He’s wonderfully supported here with a rolling score by composer Alexander Desplat, whose six Oscar nominations include The Queen, Argo and The King’s Speech.

Just like a much shorter 1996 TV movie starring Derek Jacobi in the title role, the source is a 1992 book by Oxford academic Andrew Hodges. But when Mick Jagger co-produced a 2001 thriller called Enigma, Turing was shamefully not even a character for the former James Bond director Michael Apted to marshall.

The difference here is that Cumberbatch’s flawless performance ensures that Turing IS the film. And so history is finally put straight as a genius estimated to have saved 14 million lives but who was later prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, and forced to submit to a treatment of chemical castration with oestrogen injections rather than serve time behind bars receives the credit he deserves.

On December 24, 2013, Turing was awarded a rare posthumous pardon by The Queen. The Imitation Game ends in impressively moving and very moral fashion on behalf of a man way ahead of his time.

Martin Clunes is the teacher and its nativity time!
Martin Clunes is the teacher and its nativity time (again)!
 

NATIVITY 3: DUDE, WHERE’S MY DONKEY (U)

Verdict: ****

DEBBIE Isitt’s third improvised film in her family-friendly Nativity! trilogy is another colour-enhanced, deliberately bright, light-hearted, escapist Christmas romp.

Its choc full of flashmob singing performances and, as regular fans will expect, junior equivalents of Britain’s Got Talent auditions.

Super teacher Mr Shepherd (Martin Clunes) arrives at St Bernadette’s, where Celia Imrie is playing the new head, Mrs Keen. Five years after Nativity! (2009), hapless teaching assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) is still trying to do the right thing for pupils.

This year, there is a competition to be won to take children to New York, so there’s no guessing where the film will end up, especially as Sophie (Catherine Tate) is waiting to marry Mr Shepherd.

But when he loses his memory, Mr Shepherd goes into a childlike state and faces a battle to rediscover who he is.

Written and directed with unfailing gusto by Debbie Isitt, edited at home by her husband Nicky Ager and starring daughter Sydney as Sadie, Nativity 3 is a chance to escape festive shopping chores with a deeper taste of Christmas.

The scene were Mr Shepherd tries to fathom the difference between God and Santa is achingly close to the truth of modern life.

Birmingham-born and Coventry-based, Isitt makes admirably good use of regional film locations like Drayton Manor Theme Park and Bourton Model Village.

Yet she also unselfishly captures London at its best before hopping across the Atlantic to put a cherry on top of her Christmas cake.

Bravely working with children and a donkey in her trademark, improvised style, Debbie’s sense of fun sees the underrated RSC star Wootton edging towards the kind of multi-layered performance which the late Robin Williams gave in Mrs Doubtfire (1993).

THE DROP (15)

Verdict: ****

WITH a script by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island), this atmospheric thriller would ordinarily have been film of the week. But even the brilliant Tom Hardy has to bow to Benedict Cumberbatch’s.

Fresh from the TV series Peaky Blinders – and before he appears as Mad Max next May – versatile Hardy is Bob Saginowski, working in a Brooklyn bar, which the Chechen mob uses as a collection point for laundered money.

In these boozy and convivial surroundings, romance is kindled, personal ties are frayed and one hard-working member of bar staff contemplates breaking the law for a noble cause: love.

Bob likes to mind his own business, while the more verbose Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) takes overall responsibility for the money. Passing by the house of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), Bob finds a battered puppy yelping in a bin, readily acknowledging that a pit bull is ‘a dangerous dog’ lest anyone should think of falling for the admittedly cute Rocco.

Just like Bob’s quietness is unnerving at times, the dog’s injuries look impressively real – but who owns him?

A criminal low life called Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) visits Bob and claims to be Rocco’s owner. He threatens to tell the police that Bob mistreated the pitbull unless the bartender pays him 10,000 dollars.

Faced with the prospect of losing Rocco, Bob contemplates stealing dirty money from the Chechens on one of the busiest drinking days of the year: Superbowl Sunday.

The Drop is predictable but this portrait of greed and ambition on the mean streets of New York hits most of the right menacing notes.

Lehane’s lean script is peppered with colourful dialogue and sustains dramatic tension. It is blessed with James Gandolfini’s final screen performance and he is a slippery, brooding presence amid occasional twists of a serpentine plot.

However, it’s chameleonic London-born star Tom Hardy who shines brightest, juxtaposing his imposing physicality and vulnerability.

Performances from the two male leads anchor the picture, staring into the blackened hearts of men who surrendered their souls to the Devil many years ago.