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CRACKING TALE CAPTURES CODE OF MISCONDUCT TOWARD a GENIUs

It says a great deal for the skill of the British secret services (not a phrase one gets to use too often) that the very existence of one of the most important operations of the Second World War managed to be kept from the general public until the best part of 40 years after the conflict ended. The Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park was established at the outbreak of the war and its primary task was to crack the Germans' Enigma code, a fiendishly difficult cypher which changed settings every 24 hours.

Central to the effort to break down Enigma was Alan Turing, a genius mathematician and lateral thinker who was essentially the father of the modern computer.

Effectively written out of history due to his conviction for homosexuality in 1952 and suicide in 1954, he received a posthumous royal pardon last year and The Imitation Game should cement his rightful place in history.

Played onstage and on TV by Derek Jabobi in Breaking the Code in the late 80s, here the complex character is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch with a performance which already has the 'O' word being bandied about. I probably wouldn't go that far myself but there's no denying that Cumberbatch delivers a terrific turn in a well-crafted and gripping film.

As we know, the British do stiff upper lip period drama awfully well, so it comes as something of surprise to discover that The Imitation Game has been directed by Morten Tyldum, the Norwegian who gave us the bloodsoaked black comedy Headhunters. Tyldum unfussily frames Graham Moore's script between Turing's arrest in Manchester in 1951, where an interview with Detective Robert Nock (a fine Rory Kinnear) leads us back to the mathematician's arrival at Bletchley Park in 1939.

Being somewhat lacking in social skills, Turing initially alienates his commander (Charles Dance) ousts unit leader Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) but receives the backing of shadowy Mi6 operative Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong).

Turing is also crucial in recruiting the team's only female member Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the pair forming a friendship which offers us a glimpse of the man's inner life beyond riddles and numerical patterns.

In essence though, The Imitation Game is a classic 'race against time' tale with the added intrigue of how the authorities would deign to use the information they had once Enigma had been cracked.

What comes across too is just how callous and heartless the establishment could be in the treatment meted out to a man who'd arguably saved a couple of million lives but was doomed because of his sexual preferences.

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THE DROP

(Drama. Starring Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz. Directed by Michael R. Roskam. Cert 15A)

With a Denis Lehane script based on his own short story and featuring the final screen appearance by James Gandolfini, this tale of low-level crime centred around a Brooklyn dive bar should have had my name written all over it but doesn't quite hit heights I'd expected. I'll put that down to my own over-eagerness but, that said, The Drop is a solid and occasionally powerful piece of work.

Central to proceedings is Tom Hardy as Bob Saginowski. Bob works at Cousin Marv's Bar, a joint occasionally used by the Mob to drop off illegal loot which Marv (Gandolfini) used to own outright until he got into some financial trouble and had to sell out to a Chechen gang. Slow of movement and seemingly of thought, Hardy channels Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront here, not least when he adopts an abandoned pitbull pup and befriends neurotic waitress Nadia, played by an underused Noomi Rapace.

Unfortunately for Bob, when the bar is robbed he and Marv are on the spot for the money stolen, in addition to which Nadia's psycho ex Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) is back on the scene and making a nuisance of himself. As you can see there's plenty to be getting along with there, the film looks suitably seedy and down-at-heel and the performances are uniformly good. However, despite all the positives The Drop just doesn't quite ever take off the way it could have but is still worth a look nonetheless.

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THIRD PERSON

(Drama. Starring Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody, Moran Atlas, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Maria Bello, Kim Basinger. Dircted by Paul Haggis. Cert 15A)

Writer/director Paul Haggis somehow snared the Best Picture and Best Screenplay Oscars for 2004's Crash, a self-conscious, pretentious soap opera of a film if ever there was one and, if anything, Third Person is even worse. The device of interlinking several stories is trotted out again, the central one being former Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael (Liam Neeson) sitting in his Paris hotel room agonising over his latest work and having Anna (Olivia Wilde) arrive and cavort about the place semi-naked.

In truth, no amount of semi-nude cavorting from Ms Wilde would compensate for the therapy-speak waffle you'd have to endure and in parallel tales we have a fashion industry hustler (Adrien Brody) miraculously coming to the aid of a Roma woman (Moran Atlas), in Rome, whose daughter has been kidnapped. Lob in New York screw-up Monika (Mila Kunis) whose ex-husband, pretentious artist Rick (James Franco, not a little typecast here), has taken custody of their son and you have an utter mess of a movie which defies logic on several levels and wastes the talents of some fine performers.

To tell you the truth, if you're not spitting with rage at the ludicrous conclusion after 136 minutes of this nonsense I'll be surprised. Easily a contender for worst picture of the year.

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LEVIATHAN

(Drama. Starring Alexey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Cert 12A)

Leviathan is Russia's entry to the Foreign Language section of this year's Oscars, which is pretty surprising considering that the picture it paints of life under Putin's rule is hardly an optimistic one, to say the least.

Based loosely around the Book of Job, the story concerns Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), whose seaside house in a bleak fishing port on the shores of the Barents Sea has been acquired by a corrupt mayor, leading the protagonist and his family into a spiral of events which become ever more despairing at each turn.

Beautifully shot and not without its darkly humourous moments, Leviathan is a powerful and pessimistic portrait of a people feeling lost in the face of a monolithic system and seeking solace in vodka-soaked oblivion. I certainly wouldn't bet against it come February.

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SET FIRE TO THE STARS

(Drama. Starring Celyn Jones, Elijah Wood, Kevin Eldon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Mackintosh, Kelly Reilly. Directed by Andy Goddard. Cert 15A)

Co-writer Celyn Jones sparkles at the centre of this account of Dylan Thomas's first visit to the US in 1950, portraying the great poet as a rowdy, unreliable genius who makes life an utter misery for the fellow poet, John M Brinnin (Elijah Wood), who's volunteered to act as a minder for a college recital tour. Shot in a fetching monochrome, the film makes the most of budgetary constraints but more Thomas and less Brinnin might have been a good idea.

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