History Boys: The Brilliant British Lads Of ‘Theory,’ ‘Pride’ & ‘Imitation’

ben-schnetzer-mark-ashton-pride It happens every year. That handsomely produced movie, often British, usually a period piece. It’s a perfectly fine film — unchallenging, uncomplicated, more or less forgettable. It has the right stars, the right tone, the right credentials, the right subject matter, and most importantly, the right budget for an awards campaign. (It helps if the Weinsteins are involved.)

Every year, one or two of these titles sneak their way into the Oscar race. Occasionally, they gain such steam that they actually win the big prizes. The most notable example in recent years? The King’s Speech, which won Best Picture shortly before no one ever spoke of it again. Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone mention The King’s Speech in conversation? Does it stick out in your mind as one of the strongest films of the past decade? The King’s Speech defeated Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Inception, and most shamefully, The Social Network, all movies I’ve heard people talk about over the past few years.

The King’s Speech is fine. But it didn’t deserve an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s just that sometimes, the safest choice is the choice that takes home the big prize.

The Imitation Game has plenty in common with The King’s Speech. It focuses on World War II-era Britain, a well-trodden period of history. It hinges on a central male performance that is inarguably its strongest suit. The Weinsteins are distributing it. And it is one of the frontrunners in the Oscar race as far as nominations go, almost certain to procure a nod for Benedict Cumberbatch, and nearly as certain to earn a slot in the Best Picture race also. The Golden Globes have so anointed it, tying for five nominations with Boyhood (bested only by Birdman‘s seven).best-actor-benedict-cumberbatch-the-imitation-gameThe Imitation Game starts off in stride, with an amusing interview between Cumberbatch’s twentysomething maths prodigy Alan Turing and Commander Alastair Dennington (Charles Dance, borrowing some menace from Tywin Lannister as an otherwise underwritten adversary). Turing is what would have been classified then as an “odd fellow,” someone we would say now is “on the spectrum.” He doesn’t pick up on social cues and sees little value in being polite. But his country needs him to solve the riddle that is Germany’s Enigma machine, for (as this film tells it) that is their only hope of winning the Second World War. So the stakes are high. We are reminded often, but we don’t really feel it.

Alan cares obsessively about the machine he’s building to crack German codes, but not so much because he’s concerned about the outcome of the war. His gigantic code-cracking machine, which he names Christopher, is his only true companion in the world — though the mission’s sole female member, Joan (a miscast Keira Knightley), tries to get through to him. In addition to (probably) having Aspergerg’s, Alan Turing is also gay, and it’s hard to say which of these qualities ostracizes him more in the intolerant climate of mid-century Britain. IMITATION-GAME-ALLEN-LEECH-MATTHEW-GOODE-MATTHEW-BEARDThe Imitation Game takes place over the course of three time periods, World War II falling in the middle. The film has a framing device, with a police officer (Rory Kinnear) investigating Turing after a robbery, wondering about his secretive past. It also flashes back to his childhood in an all-boys school, where he developed a crush on his first and only friend, Christopher, who taught him how to break codes (and was likely gay himself). How this would-be romance ends is revealed late in the story, though we can guess from Alan’s resigned solitude that it wasn’t a happily-ever-after.

Strangely enough, these childhood flashbacks may be the strongest and most poignant aspect of The Imitation Game. The World War II stuff holds our interest, as Alan clashes with his superiors and equals (including Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, and Mark Strong). These conflicts hit the proper story beats but don’t create palpable drama, with Turing remaining emotionally closed off throughout and the larger stakes of the global battles rarely making an impact.

Perhaps most egregiously, the code-breaking drama isn’t very convincing — are we really supposed to believe that geniuses like Alan and Joan didn’t ever think to look for common phrases in the German messages before Turing has his big climactic breakthrough? Because I thought of it, sitting in the theater, about a half an hour before they did. Either I also could have ended World War II (several months before it actually ended), or the script by Graham Moore takes a bunch of lazy shortcuts with the historical facts and hopes audiences are too dumb to think about it much. (Probably the latter.) THE IMITATION GAMEKeira Knightley’s Joan is fun in concept. She’s meant to be the spunky, just-one-of-the-boys token female, and in theory it’s fun that the gay and the girl are the key agents of change in this World War II story. But The Imitation Game is obviously more comfortable pushing a feminist agenda than a homosexual one, which makes us wonder why it bothers with the gay stuff at all. Knightley is fine, but she’s too big a star to play the girl genius no one expects anything of — when Keira Knightley walks into a scene, we know we’re meant to pay attention. A lesser-known actress, perhaps more of a tomboy, would be more believable in the role. Knightley, too, is poised to earn an Oscar nod — she got one from the Globes — but that’s a shame, considering that she’s doing nothing new here, and very well may take a slot away from more deserving and vital actresses like Wild‘s Laura Dern or Nightcrawler‘s Rene Russo.

If Cumberbatch does get a nomination, he will deserve it, at least, for he’s the live wire in a film that is otherwise fairly inert. The Imitation Game contains a couple of weak, large-scale special effects shots that are supposed to make the scale feel epic, but they’re poorly rendered and ill-advised, and end up looking cheap. Alexandre Desplat’s score is too lush and cheerful to convey the sense of foreboding that should be felt in a World War II story. (It’s the musical equivalent of a “Keep Calm and Carry On!” poster.) There’s no sense of risk or danger, which follows in the grand tradition of stiff-upper-lip dramas about serious subject matter that aren’t ultimately all that serious. Imitation-Game-keira-knightley-mark-strong-benedict-cumberbatchHow is it possible to turn such a monumental true story into a trifle? If we’re to believe an impassioned speech by Joan and the title cards at the end of the film, Alan Turing is single-handedly responsible both for winning World War II and for inventing the computer. His reward from the British government? Castration for his “sexual deviance,” which led to his suicide at age 41. The film seems slightly sad about this, when it should be furious. The homophobic angle is tepid and movie-of-the-week-ish. It would’ve felt like a softball back in the 1990s; now, it’s just insulting. This film was made in 2014. Audiences can handle a more daring and provocative film than The Imitation Game, one that is truly outraged at the way Turing was treated by his government, as it should be. There is no passion here, merely a shrug, as if to say, “Pity about that Turing chap, eh? But it ended all right for us!”

Turing’s story is nothing if not tragic, but The Imitation Game instead chooses to focus on more uplifting elements and save the real drama for a few lines of text on screen before the end credits roll. I have no doubt that Alan Turing was a fascinating figure, nor that Cumberbatch plays him as well as this script allows, but I’m also certain that this script misses many opportunities to portray Alan Turing as complex as he really was, to show how his sexuality and other peculiarities frustrated and isolated him, to allow him to be three dimensional rather than just a cog in the machine. Director Morton Tyldum misses the point of most of the drama, focusing instead on the visuals.IMITATION-GAME-BENEDICT-CUMBERBATCH-ALAN-Turing-arrestedI don’t mean to be too harsh on The Imitation Game. It’s slick and entertaining enough, with good performances and an engaging story. But I’m not the one poising it for Oscar gold, and by those standards, it isn’t up to snuff. There’s a smarter, more ambitious film lurking somewhere near the edges, but The Imitation Game settles for being a well-produced, “nice” movie, the kind the Oscars throw gold at on occasion. It’s the sort of film that is best when you don’t think about the better version that could have been. There was potential here for something phenomenal; what we got was fine.

The smaller-scale British drama Pride is more successful in highlighting the historical injustices faced by gay people thanks to the British government. It takes place in Margaret Thatcher-era Britain, based around the miner’s strike of the mid-1980s, which happens to be a historically significant period in the lives of gay men as well. The film follows a small band of gay men and women who organize the awkwardly-titled LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) to show solidarity with their fellow Thatcher-opposed brethren, but the sheltered, conservative small-town miners don’t exactly know how to get on with their more flamboyant counterparts, and some of them don’t want the support of a bunch of “perverts.”joseph-gilgun-ben-schnetzer-pride It sounds like the setup for an ultra-schmaltzy feel-good movie, but Pride doesn’t unfold as obviously as all that — it has stronger characters and more satisfying emotional beats than Milk, and is ultimately a stronger film. Yes, a few characters are staunchly prejudiced and serve as the villains of the piece, but even they are given their fair shake in the script by Stephen Beresford. For the most part, the outlooks and attitudes in the small-town Welsh mining community Onllwyn are diverse and varied, as are those of the LGSM. On the gay side, there’s the charismatic outspoken leader Mark (Ben Schnetzer), the flamboyant and fun Jeff (Freddie Fox), the still-closeted Joe (George MacKay), token lesbian Steph (Faye Marsay), and the disco-dancing Jonathan (Dominic West). There’s also a cameo by Looking‘s Russell Tovey as Mark’s ex. In Onllwyn, we get the inevitable Harry Potter alums of a certain age, like Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, plus Paddy Considine as Dai Donovan, who brings the LGSM to town in the first place. Jessica Gunning plays Sian, a housewife who finds her activist calling when the gays come to town.

It could all be very cringe-worthy if handled in broader strokes. The trailer made the film look upbeat and cutesy and very grandmother-appropriate, but the film itself is reasonably gritty. Pride‘s characters are mostly based on real people, which doesn’t always lend itself to characters who think and behave like real people. Here, it does. “The sassy queen,” “the slut,” “the stud” — the usual gay archetypes are almost entirely absent, thank goodness. (Though there is a vegan lesbian couple.) Instead of first introducing us to the miners, and letting them be our proxy, Pride presents fully realized gay characters and follows them into Onllwyn, which is not how these stories typically play out. (Twice over the holiday I saw the trailer for Disney’s MacFarland, USA, another story about a white teacher making an impact in an ethnic community — this time, Kevin Costner and Latinos. Oy.)PRIDEPride does get bogged down in a surplus of subplots in its second half, trying to fit in too wide a spectrum of 1980s gay life. Here it strays from the juxtaposition of the working class town versus the big city homosexuals to become a more typical “gay movie,” which is not inherently a bad thing but overly ambitious and unnecessary. It might have been irresponsible t0 set a gay story in this era and not touch on the AIDS epidemic, but it’s out of place in an otherwise focused story. (Then again, given that many of these characters are based on real people, some of whom were HIV positive, it might have been equally egregious to sweep these details under the rug and never mention them.)

That’s a minor complaint in an otherwise stellar movie, one that has the quirky fish-out-of-water British humor of something like The Full Monty while presenting us with a whole host of three-dimensional gay, female, and working class characters of all ages, shapes, and sizes, none of whom are easy cliches. That’s no small feat. Pride has rightly been nominated for the Golden Globes’ Best Musical or Comedy award, a slot that often goes toward a lame studio comedy like The Tourist or a musical dud like Burlesque instead of an underseen gem that could use the attention. (I’m not sure that Pride is really a comedy, but oh well.) It’s hard to single out a single awards-worthy performance in the all-around solid cast — Dominic West playing gay, Bill Nighy as the long-closeted Cliff, or Ben Schnetzer’s admirable activist Mark in the centerpiece role. Pride is probably too small to factor into the Oscar race at all this year, but in a just world, it would replace The Imitation Game as a contender. eddie-redmayne-felicity-jones-theory-of-everything-blacklightFaring much better than The Imitation Game is that other handsome British biopic featuring a likely Best Actor contender, The Theory Of Everything. In an overcrowded awards season, The Theory Of Everything has, like The Imitation Game, garnered most of its buzz for its central performance, this time by Eddie Redmayne. Otherwise, it has flown just under the radar in a year with more daring and provocative films like Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl, and Selma dominating the critical conversation.

It’s too bad, though, because The Theory Of Everything is worlds better than The Imitation Game, and doesn’t deserve to be dumped into the same boring British biopic box. Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking throughout the bulk of his life, from his time as a PhD student at Cambridge through the 1980s. The story begins as Stephen meets Jane Wilde. They’re both young and single with limitless possibilities ahead of them. Hawking is already considered a genius, though he’s having trouble narrowing down a focus for his studies. Jane warms up to him easily, falling for his mind and reticent confidence more than any other trait. She’s a religious girl, while Stephen is a man of science. The opposites attract.eddie-redmayne-best-actor-felicity-jones-best-actress-theory-of-everything-croquetShortly after this courtship begins, Hawking collapses and is diagnosed with ALS. He’s given a window of two years to live. Simple tasks like walking and talking first become very difficult, then impossible. Stephen gives Jane an easy out but she refuses to take it, declaring her love and starting a family with Stephen despite the fact that he may not be around much longer. The years go on, and Stephen doesn’t succumb. Both partners find themselves challenged by their relationship. Stephen’s ALS is only one factor — at times, it’s what threatens to drive them apart; other times, it may be the only thing keeping them together.

This should be boring. We’ve seen many stories like this: a tortured prodigy faced with physical obstacles, a wife standing patiently by to help him carry on. Many moments in The Theory Of Everything seem set up for a familiar, predictable beat to land, only to have it… not. The Theory Of Everything rarely dips into the well of Things We’ve Seen Before, and never shows us something just because it happened. Every scene is part of a story — not just a true story, but a truly cinematic one. Not every biopic can claim that. And it’s fun — especially once Stephen starts utilizing the computer-generated voice he’s now known for, which in all its robotic monotone emerges as a real extension of his playful personality.Eddie-Redmayne-The-Theory-of-Everything_stephen-hawkingThe Theory Of Everything avoids the grand dramatic gestures we think we see coming from miles away. There are no explosive dramatic moments, no forced tensions, no false notes. It’s primarily a story of love between Stephen and Jane; very little of it focuses on anything but that. Their relationship evolves into something different than it started as over time, as all loves do if they last long enough. But that love’s always there, always visible on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ faces. They needn’t say the words. It’s a relief, in a movie like this, to actually buy into the romance. So many similar movies try and force the idea of love upon us, but don’t seem to believe in it themselves. The Theory Of Everything is convinced.

Better still, this is the rare biopic about a male figure that gives equal consideration to his love interest — in many moments, the story belongs to Jane rather than Stephen, and they’re equally wrenching. Jane never becomes either a naggy shrew or a cheerleader, as females tend to in such stories. She’s not just here as a vessel for Stephen to project upon. We palpably feel the pain both of these people are faced with, hers as worthy of the cinematic treatment as his, not shoved aside just because he’s famous. The Theory Of Everything may be about a real-life figure facing the challenges of ALS, but to its credit, it could just as easily be about two characters named Stephen and Jane going through more typical marital turmoil, and we’d be equally invested.eddie-redmayne-felicity-jones-theory-of-everything-in-bedThe script by Anthony McCarten is remarkably mature, sparing us the hissy fits and histrionics so often utilized to create false drama in a movie like this. The drama lies in the truth of the situation — we don’t need a lot of screaming and crying to feel it. We are constantly amazed by how well Stephen Hawking handles the challenges of his illness in this movie — that allows us to feel his pain more, not less. Director James Marsh’s subtle touch, on display in documentaries like Man On Wire, is equally present here. He lets moments play out as they actually would, not as the rules of an Oscar movie would dictate.

The Theory Of Everything can’t help but feel a little like A Beautiful Mind Jr., because the stories have so many similarities. Late in the film, it also begs comparison to the spectacular The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which was one of the best films in a year that also gave us No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and ZodiacThe Theory Of Everything is not quite as inventive or artful as The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, but it’s a good deal better than Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, featuring a more impressive lead performance. Redmayne is superbly convincing in each and every moment, from his first slight struggles through his wheelchair-bound middle age. What he manages to convey with limited dialogue and movement is astounding, yet he also finds room in his performance to be truly funny (just like Hawking). It’s tempting to write off such performances as showy Oscar grabs, but Redmayne wins us over. It must’ve been seriously hard work, but it looks effortless.eddie-redmayne-theory-of-everythingI initially underestimated The Theory Of Everything, putting off my viewing until long after its release. I thought it was another Beautiful Mind, another King’s Speech. But it’s much better. Redmayne may or may not end up being my favorite leading male performance of the year, but he’s certainly in contention, and he blows Benedict Cumberbatch out of the water. (No offense to Cumberbatch, but he plays a stronger character in a film by a better director, and it’s a more physical performance.) I’d be delighted if Redmayne won an Oscar for the role. (And it would certainly be something if both Redmayne and Julianne Moore won Oscars this year for people suffering from rare illnesses.)

While The Imitation Game has a few figures serving as obvious foils to Turing, The Theory Of Everything more intelligently has no antagonist but time itself. Hawking decides early on that he will devote his life’s work to the study of time, just after he learns that he probably hasn’t got much time left. He studies a span of billions of years while counting down the tiny handful of years his doctor has given him. Time changes Stephen, just as it changes Jane, just as it changes us all, in a way that might seem like cruelty but is merely cosmic indifference. Stephen, at times, seems more like another of Jane’s children instead of her husband, but ALS has merely hastened what time would have done to him eventually — and what it will do to her, and what it will do to all of us. Time makes us old, and feeble, and ultimately nonexistent. We have only a little of it, so we must use it wisely, living and loving as we see fit. This is one Oscar-grab movie that is actually worthy of an Oscar or two, a reminder of why these handsome British dramas started winning awards in the first place.     eddie-redmayne-felicity-jones-dancing-theory-of-everything *

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