Is Benedict Cumberbatch a bona fide box-office star? After disappointing returns for The Fifth Estate last year, the industry concluded that his star power alone wasn’t enough to propel audiences into a film featuring a character (Julian Assange) they didn’t like, didn’t care about, or thought they knew plenty about already. Then again, the list of actors able to deliver hits from any material is vanishingly small. Hit movies invariably require the combination of the right actor in the right role, positioned for a defined audience.
The Imitation Game, evidently, brings together the actor, role and subject matter desired by every distributor and financier. With a debut of £2.74m (including £47,000 in previews) from 459 screens, delivering a robust average of £5,975, the film has landed at the top end of industry expectations. This is, after all, a second world war movie about a socially maladjusted maths boffin (Alan Turing), rather than, say, a heroic tank commander played by Brad Pitt in Fury, to give a recent example. The film doesn’t necessarily deliver the exciting action and inspiring bravery associated with the war-film genre. Its thrills – a race against time to crack the Enigma code and defeat the Nazis – exist in a more cerebral space.
Apt comparisons for The Imitation Game are hard to make, but the movie Enigma, likewise concerning the Bletchley Park codebreakers, debuted in 2001 with £797,000. Despite the familiarity of the bestselling Robert Harris novel for the earlier film, audiences are showing stronger interest in a real-life character – whose tragic denouement gives The Imitation Game some real emotional purchase – than a fictional composite. They may also be being drawn to the new film’s cast, which features Cumberbatch alongside Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Rory Kinnear.
Other comparisons that might be made for The Imitation Game include The King’s Speech (debut of £3.52m, including £227,000 in previews) and period spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (£2.81m). Both these films likewise exceeded expectations. Fury, incidentally, began with £2.69m including £698,000 in previews.