I’m usually not a big fan of labeling prestige movies you don’t like as “Oscar bait” but every once in a while a film is guilty as charged. It used to be that the movies which were obvious Oscar bait were the big expensive epics like Out of Africa or The English Patient but it’s been a really long time since a particularly large budget movie has actually won Best Picture, so the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have readjusted their targets. Today the movies that have the best Oscar chances are the ones that are small enough to be considered underdogs, but still large enough to be recognizably a studio film. These movies are supposed to be dramas, preferably ones based on true stories, which have very simple messages and are told in very traditional and mainstream ways that are in no ways “arty” even if they initially open up in so-called “arthouses.” Bonus points if they’re British, double points if they have simplistic messages to deliver about some social issue or other, and triple bonus points if they’re set during World War II. In general, movies for old people who don’t want unchallenging entertainment but also don’t necessarily want to go to the effects spectacles that Hollywood generally sells to the masses. There’s usually only one movie each year that hits all these points but this year we got two of them, each one more desperate in their “Oscar bait” qualities than the last: the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. In fact these movies are so uncannily complimentary that I thought I’d do something a little different with them and review both at the same time.
So, obviously these are both biopics of famous British scientists afflicted with debilitating problems. In the case of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) that problem is of course the ALS which left him all but paralyzed and forced to speak by typing into a voice synthesis and in the case of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that was (in the movie at least) an almost autistic level of social awkwardness and the fact that he was a homosexual in a less than tolerant era. The Theory of Everything is largely about Hawkings’s marriage to his college girlfriend Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones) while The Imitation Game focuses in on Turing’s attempts to crack the German Enigma code and his relationship with a smart code breaker named Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightly), who is herself something of a fish out of water as a woman working in a man’s field.
Both of these films come from filmmakers who are relative newcomers. The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh, a filmmaker who’s made three fictional features which received minimal exposure and a pair of very popular though slightly over-rated documentaries called Man on Wire and Project Nim. The Imitation Game was directed by a Norwegian filmmaker named Morten Tyldum, who’s most famous for making a genre film called Headhunters, a film I never got around to watching and which seems to have very little in common with his latest film. Neither film does anything overly special with their visuals exactly. The Imitation Game is basically just trying to imitate the visual stylings of The King’s Speech minus the off-center camera angles (AKA, the only interesting thing about that movie’s visual style). The Theory of Everything isn’t exactly trying to do anything too different, but you could tell that Marsh has something of a visual eye for filmmaking. He picks interesting angles here and there and he also knows how not to play into certain obvious script beats as heavily. Another advantage for Team Hawkings is that it generally has a more memorable original score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which generally trumps Alexandre Desplat’s (another King’s Speech alum) often intrusive score for The Imitation Game.
The advantage on the side of Team Turing is that it’s generally a more focused movie with more of a clear central conflict to work through. Where The Theory of Everything is basically just a chronological run-through of the highlights and lowlights of Hawkings’ life and marriage, The Imitation Game very specifically focuses on Turing’s work on the Enigma code and his race to help end the war with a couple of flashbacks and flash-forwards to help flesh out his life story. Also, given the hardships that Turing went through later in his life the film isn’t really able to entirely rest on a “triumph of the human spirit over adversity” story, but it sure as hell tries. The message of the film is that sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine, I know this because characters in the film actually say that sentence out loud not once, not twice, but three freakin’ times just to make this corny sentiment absolutely condescendingly clear to everyone in the audience. When the film finally brings up the downer ending of Turings life it almost feels like a coda to the film’s true climax.
Questionable as all that is, it’s still feels gritty and tough when compared to the aggressive pleasantness that defines The Theory of Everything. I guess it would be wrong to say that the life of someone with a debilitating illness like Stephen Hawkings is without struggle, but the film sure makes it seem that way. We do certainly see the struggles with Hawkins’ health problems but his interactions with other people seem almost idyllic. He’s got a doting wife with seemingly saint-like patience, friends and colleagues who are completely understanding of his problems and willing to accommodate them, and a career that is marked by almost nothing but success the whole way through. Even when Hawkings’ marriage finally dissolves late in the film it is perhaps the single most amicable breakup scene in film history. His wife doesn’t even show the slightest bit of resentment when she is more or less dumped after having shown Job-like patience up to this point. Also, the movie’s final moment in which Hawkings puts forward his children as his greatest accomplishment rings completely hollow given the film’s complete lack of interest in said children up to this point.
Getting back to these movie’s status as Oscar bait, let’s talk about the two actors who are clearly vying for awards in the two movies. Eddie Redmayne, who is probably best known as the twerp who shows up in the second half of Les Miserable, is not a very well-known actor but he does a pretty admirable job of potraying a young Stephen Hawking. This is a pretty damn baity role that allows Redmayne to go all “My Left Foot” all over the screen. In fact the role may end up being a little too baity for Oscar voters. This could almost be the physical disability version “going full retard” as Robert Downy Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder might have put it. Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly a much more famous actor and while I’ve liked a lot of his work I can’t say I fully understand why the internet seems to be so singularly obsessed with him. This Turing role is not too far removed from what we’ve seen him do before, after all his signature role of Sherlock Holmes is similarly eccentric and anti-social. Harvey Weinstein seemed to know this, because the movie actually makes this character more eccentric than the real Alan Turing apparently was. In the film Turing is not merely eccentric but more than likely on the Asperger’s spectrum, which was not true of the real Turing and the film also exaggerates the degree to which the chemical castration he received late in life physically manifested itself.
Those are not the only liberties that The Imitation Game took with the life of the real Alan Turing, in fact my cursory research seems to suggest that the movie uses “creative license” with something of a reckless abandon. Turing’s actual computer was not named after his deceased childhood friend, his relationship with his real commanding officer and colleagues was significantly less adversarial, the Keira Knightly character has generally been expanded and emphasized more than is probably proportional, a scene in which the cryptographers are forced to decide whether or not to warn a ship of an impending Nazi attack is entirely invented, and Turing’s interactions with an MI6 agent towards the end were also invented for the film. I don’t expect movies like this to be entirely factual and am well aware of the fact that liberties like this do sometimes need to be taken, but I don’t think any of these changes were for the better. They almost all feel false on the screen and generally come off as hokey when they happen. Even if they had all been true I would have suggested that some of them should have been changed to make the film seem less clichéd, but they are as phony as they initially seemed, and this is particularly jarring given that Turing’s story actually was interesting enough on its face and shouldn’t have needed these fabrications in order to work.
This is not to say that I think The Theory of Everything is an entirely factual endeavor itself, but when I watched it I didn’t feel an overwhelming phoniness to it. In fact I almost feel like it could have used a little manufactured drama here and there in order to give it a little more conflict. What’s more, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving The Theory of Everything a pass in general. It is in no way a noteworthy film, it shouldn’t be in the awards season conversation in general (outside of maybe the Best Actor category), and I don’t recommend it. That said, I went into that movie with pretty low expectations and it did manage to rise slightly (and I do mean slightly) above them and in general I think its only real crime is being kind of dull. The Imitation Game on the other hand is a movie that I thought was kind of lame as I walked out of the theater and have come to be sort of infuriated by it the more I read about its historical distortions. What’s sad is that it’s probably going to get a lot of support from people who will say that it’s an “important” story. That’s true, the Turing story is important, but that doesn’t mean that this is a good movie.
The Theory of Everything: **1/2 out of Four
The Imitation Game: ** out of Four