Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game"

The trouble with biopics about brilliant people is that it's difficult for viewers of average intelligence to appreciate them for their brilliance.  The filmmakers are obliged to spend some time making a case for their subject being worthy of the viewer's attention.  For biopics of artists, their work can easily be displayed and discussed - the life and times of Mozart, Van Gogh, and Michaelangelo have spawned wonderful films.  But how do you discuss the far more intangible accomplishments of math and physics genius Stephen Hawking, or computer scientist Alan Turing?  
"The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game" are devoted to the struggles of two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.  "Theory" does this by exploring Stephen Hawking's (Eddie Redmayne) relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), and the progression of his severe disabilities caused by ALS.  "Imitation" focuses on Alan Turing's (Benedict Cumberbatch) most famous accomplishment, breaking the Nazis' Enigma code during World War II.  Both are decent films, bolstered by strong performances, but one is considerably more successful than the other for a variety of reasons.
"The Theory of Everything" does an admirable job of humanizing Stephen Hawking, who has become an odd fixture in pop culture, better know for his synthesized voice than his work.  The trouble is, while we learn plenty about Hawking's daunting impairments and their toll on his marriage, the film has no idea how to  address Hawking's scientific and academic accomplishments.  Various characters discuss and explain his theories, but never in much depth.  Yes, Hawking should be recognized as a survivor of a terrible disease, but his most lauded accomplishments that brought him to fame feel like a secondary concern.  At one point we learn that Hawking has reversed his position on a particular theory of how the universe began, but we're never told why, or what the significance of that is.  The conversation is primarily used to illustrate the state of the Hawkings' marriage at that time.  The romance is also undercut by the film fumbling the couple's later relationship troubles, which are downplayed and glossed over to try and keep the appearance of a happy ending. 
I suspect much of the trouble comes from the fact that Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde are both still very much alive, so the filmmakers were obliged to present them both in the best light possible.  Both characters end up idealized and dreadfully boring.  Redmayne and Jones are both very good in their roles though.  Redmayne is particularly memorable as Hawking, capturing the extent of his physical disabilities and limitations.  However, his efforts feel wasted on what is ultimately a bland, unambitious look at the life of Stephen Hawking that feels far too rote and formulaic for its subject.  At times it felt like I was watching a middlebrow period romance that just happened to have a disabled physicist as one of the love interests. As biopics go this is competent, but disappointing.
"The Imitation Game" could have been a similar bungle, but it fares much, much better.  Alan Turing is built up as a far more engaging central figure, a mathematical genius with absolutely no social skills, who acts so insufferable about his mental superiority that he tends to repel those he wants to help.  However, Britain is at war and needs Turing's mind to crack the Enigma code protecting the Axis powers.  "Imitation Game" is as much a dramatic thriller as it is a biopic, establishing high stakes for the codebreakers racing against the clock each day to decode messages.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing, but he gets a lot of support from a stellar ensemble, including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightly as colleagues, and Mark Strong and Charles Dance as Turing's military superiors.    
Where "The Theory of Everything" assumed that the audience was familiar with Stephen Hawking, "The Imitation Game" assumes the audience knows very little about Alan Turing, so it treats him as a mystery.  His personal history is gradually revealed through intercutting among three different periods of Turing's life - during the war, and his experiences before and after.  A post-war arrest and investigation of Turing's activities acts as a framing device.  Director Morten Tyldum, best known for the heist film "Headhunters," does a great job of keeping the momentum up, letting the narrative occasionally flirt with spy and conspiracy movie tropes.  So "The Imitation Game" doesn't feel like a biopic for most of its length, even though that's ultimately what it embraces being.  And in the end, it has far more emotional resonance and impact. 
I still don't feel I know much about either Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking, but I understand why "The Imitation Game" was made, which I can't say about "The Theory of Everything."  

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