Battle of the brains: The Theory of Everything vs The Imitation Game

It’s Oscar time again, and I really should know better. I’ve followed the Academy Awards for twenty years, and I realised about fifteen years ago that they aren’t a true reflection of the quality or scope of the year’s movies.

However, like a devoted WWE fan who knows deep down that the fighting isn’t really real, I still can’t stop myself going ape when the contenders start flinging themselves from the top rope come Awards season.

By the time you read this, we’ll know whether Eddie Redmayne has completed his all-conquering awards sweep and landed the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. He faces stiff competition from Birdman‘s Michael Keaton, and is also up against Benedict Cumberbatch, playing WWII codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

The Theory of Everything/The Imitation Game

Directed by: James Marsh/Morten Tyldum
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

There’s another chance to catch both performances at Kino Scala and Kino Art over the next few weeks.

The roles are superficially similar – two ascending British actors playing geniuses in tweedy, respectable biopics – but the approach from Redmayne and Cumberbatch couldn’t be more different.

Adapted from the book by Hawking’s first wife Jane, The Theory of Everything charts their relationship from first meeting to marriage to eventual divorce, and how his degenerative motor neuron disease affected their lives.

Redmayne’s performance is astonishing, and in some ways even more remarkable in the earlier scenes as an unafflicted young man. He disappears so completely into the role that from the moment he appeared on screen, I thought that I was watching a young Hawking instead of Redmayne. In those early scenes, he displays the inquisitive intelligence so apparent in Hawking’s writing, whereas in full disability mode I felt that I was just watching a high-end impersonation.

While Redmayne is technically brilliant, the film doesn’t really show what makes Hawking tick. This might be because it is adapated from Jane’s account, and is therefore her point of view. Yet it is disappointing that we’re not allowed to get closer to Hawking. Part of his popular appeal is his accessibility, and his ability to make esoteric subjects understandable for regular people with his generous, playful writing.

theoryofeverythingBeyond the performances of Redmayne and his co-star Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything doesn’t offer much. While it is a grown up portrayal of a relationship under highly unusual pressures, it feels scrupulously polite about its subjects.

It plays like a superhero origins movie, as the dramatic thrust is waiting to see how the gawky young man will transform into the wheelchair bound Simpsons guest star and theoretical physicist we all know and love. When he uses his famous talking computer for the first time, it’s like seeing Spiderman discovering that he can shoot webs or Batman taking the Batmobile for its first spin.

The Imitation Game is a conventional Sunday Teatime war thriller about Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) and his team racing against time to crack the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma code. History pedants have taken issue with Graham Moore’s screenplay for playing fast and loose with the facts, and the film has drawn flak for downplaying Turing’s homosexuality, which resulted in his crude punishment by the British legal system.

However, in an era of endless Transformers sequels and superhero movies, director Morten Tyldum deserves credit for making a popular movie about a codebreaking boffin that brings a lesser known historical travesty to more people’s attention. The film stayed with me because I’m proud of my country’s role in the war, but was stung to tears of shame by the medieval way Turing was criminalised.

THE IMITATION GAMEIn contrast to Redmayne’s invisible performance, the role of Turing couldn’t be more Cumberbatchy. Moore’s screenplay retrofits Turing with Asperger-like tics, a man capable of breaking unbreakable codes but who struggles to interact with other human beings. Cumberbatch has plenty to work with, and it’s a big starry performance – while Cumberbatch occasionally immerses himself, we never forget that we are watching a star at his peak, and the role came along at exactly the right moment in his career.

The Imitation Game has already etched its way into history since its creators threw the movie’s weight behind a campaign petitioning the British government to pardon the other 49,000 gay men who, like Turing, were charged under the UK’s draconian gross indecency laws. To date, the petition has acquired over half a million signatures.

Despite their Best Picture nominations, I don’t think many people will be talking about either film in ten years time, but both are worth seeing for their outstanding central performances.

Who do you prefer? I’m with Cumberbatch, because as much as I admire Redmayne’s subtlety, I’m a sucker for a juicy crowd-pleasing performance…

***

The Theory of Everything

Kino Scala – 28/2, 5/3, 7/3 and Kino Art 26/2 & 27/2

The Imitation Game

Kino Scala – 24/02, 27/02, 6/3, 9/3 and Kino Art 26/2

 

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