Like a pair of overachieving rival siblings with fetching English accents, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything have been set on a path to compete for audience affection and awards season attention this fall. The two movies, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival, both depict true stories of British geniuses whose work has been hugely influential and whose lives are marked by great adversity — one-two punches of success and tragedy.
Both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are also directed by filmmakers with hip pedigrees — the former by Morten Tyldum of the Norwegian art-theft thriller Headhunters, and the latter by James Marsh, who won an Oscar for doc Man on Wire. And they're both handsome productions starring handsome U.K. actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, in the sort of roles that have Oscar written all over them, which is not so much a compliment as much as an indication of genre.
Fortunately, you needn't pick only one (unless you're an Academy voter), and which you like better may depend on how you like your biopics. By that mark, The Theory of Everything has the edge, thanks to the way it approaches its subject, physicist Stephen Hawking, through the arc of his marriage to his first wife Jane (a terrific Felicity Jones), from whose memoir Anthony McCarten adapted the screenplay. It's a journey of the heart centered on someone who tends to be regarded as an exceptional mind in a failing body, famed for his scientific achievement and the ALS that gradually robbed him of the ability to control his muscles.
The Theory of Everything, which hits theaters Nov. 7, doesn't ignore either of those aspects, but in presenting itself as a love story first, it finds an affectively bittersweet emotional grounding. It's an examination not just of what it's like to be Stephen Hawking, but what it's like to be his partner. Jane and Stephen meet and court in lush sequences at Cambridge that Marsh filters in shades of blue, red, and buttery yellow, the area an idyllic paradise of courtyards and sunny riverbanks, wood-lined rooms and cozy pubs.
Their first kiss, at the university's May Ball, is presented with fairy-tale prettiness, though their romance soon faces an enormous obstacle when Stephen's diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Warned the man she loves likely only has two years to live, Jane weds him anyway, and pair ends up having three children together over decades of ups and downs, Stephen's slow deterioration, and his rise to fame.
The physicality of Redmayne's work is remarkable, progressing from small imprecisions in how Stephen holds his head or reaches for things, to changes in his gait, to the increasing affects on his speech. It's the kind of performance so technically adept it threatens to feel stuntlike, the mimicking of real disability turned into theater. But Redmayne — best known for playing the swoony Marius in the 2012 Les Miserables movie — infuses Stephen with dry wit, pride, and occasional anger, even as his ability to express these things becomes more limited. And Jones plays Jane as a worthy match for someone who's not always simple to love.
Stephen isn't noble or neutered, and Jane isn't a saint, being steadily depleted by having a husband just as dependent on her as their kids are. They may care deeply for each other, but their circumstances inexorably drain the romance away from their connection. And the addition of friends and caretakers (Charlie Cox and Maxine Peake), whose jobs intimately integrate them into the lives of the family, complicates matters further. The Theory of Everything may be a beautiful love story, but it's not an easy one.
The Theory of Everything doesn't dig all that deeply into the theoretical physics to which its subject devoted his life, but it does find an interesting visual way to tie together his personal dramas and themes of his research into the nature and origin of time. The Imitation Game, which was adapted by Graham Moore from a book by Andrew Hodges and which reaches theaters Nov. 21, has a more awkward go at trying to link the work of its subject, cryptographer, mathematician, and inventor Alan Turing, to a celebration of human differences.
Turing is different, even when compared with the fellow smartypants (Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech) with which he's first grouped at Bletchley Park, after having been recruited at the start of World War II to crack the Enigma machine used by the Germans to encrypt their messages. Turing is brilliant and socially maladroit, displaying moments of Drax the Destroyer-level literalism and Asperger-like behavior. He's also gay, a fact that has terrible consequences for him after the war, a period we get a glimpse of in a framing device that's screenwriterly in all kinds of clunky ways.
But Turing's differences are also his strengths, The Imitation Game insists a little glibly, and make him suited for a life of secrets, at least until a movie demands he confess everything to some rando policeman for the sake of structure. But these complaints feel minor when the film gets humming on the process of decrypting the code. While the rest of the team goes at it manually, work that has to be dumped each night, Alan focuses on building a machine that will do the calculations faster. The introduction of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a newcomer to Bletchley who becomes his friend, confidant, and unknowing beard, sets the film down a path toward Alan accepting the fact that he needn't always go it alone.
There's a touch of Sherlock Holmes to Cumberbatch's Alan Turing, at least as the actor's famously played him: quick and blunt and with a contemporary touch of a mental disorder. It's the kind of role to which Cumberbatch is particularly suited, the slightly alien quality of his beauty hinting at outsiderness. But his Alan is more vulnerable and fallible, a real person rather than a superheroic detective. There's little that the people around him see as endearing about brusqueness, which gets read as arrogance.
Alan doesn't express his emotions — they leak out almost against his will, as when he struggles to admit to Joan that he likes spending time with her. It's suggested that the war, horrendous as it is in the almost dreamlike glimpses we're given, is in some ways the best period of Alan's life. He's part of a team, trusted, supported, and with an essential goal to work toward — though the group scatters their separate ways when the fighting's done.
The great, lost love of Alan's life, according to the film, was his classmate Christopher, for whom he names the proto-computer he builds to combat Enigma. Because of the lack of a grown-up partner — Knightley is, for all intents and purposes, a platonic romantic lead — The Imitation Game fits into that continuing and ever more creaky Hollywood tradition of the doomed homosexual, whose preferences can be depicted as long as there's no threateningly happy ending in store. But there's no shaking off the real, formidable injustice that was done to Alan Turing, or the truth of his incredibly sad final years. He is made into a martyr by the country he worked to protect, his incandescence dulled to nothing, and there is no place for him in a world gone back to comfortable "normalcy."