(That was the best title I could come up with, honestly.)
(Note: spoiler alert.)
I’ve recently watched The Theory of Everything with my mom, and I’ve just watched The Imitation Game last night with my best friend at a local preview screening (it hasn’t actually premiered in my country) so I figured I’d review them both and perhaps compare them, since they’re both in the running for the academy awards. Both films cover the lives of two extraordinary scientific minds, who’ve accomplished incredible feats in their various fields, though one of them is practically a celebrity that everyone knows and loves and the other’s a name that is fairly unknown to most people.
Personally, I very much preferred watching The Imitation Game and sort of wished that I brought my mom to watch that instead (she fell asleep for a bit during The Theory of Everything.) I believe my mom would’ve enjoyed TIG better,since it was much better paced due to the writing – although I’d probably have a really difficult time trying to defend Turing’s homosexuality to my homophobic parents afterwards. What I especially enjoyed was how the writers split Turing’s story up into three distinct portions – when he met his “first love”, Christopher Morcom, at Sherborne school, when he worked at Bletchley Park, and when he got arrested for “gross indecency” – and how they intricately weaved these different parts of his life together. This allows viewers to piece together his life from these bits and pieces and understand the impetus behind his actions better.
The use of explicit symbolism in TIG’s script was especially brilliant, and as a literature student (who wrote an entire essay on just one motif – the motif of “weaving” – in Silas Marner for her A-Levels), I really appreciated it.
Codes and puzzles are common motifs throughout the film. It’s most explicitly referred to through the Enigma code, which plays the central role in Turing’s story, as portrayed by the filmmakers. Beyond the unbreakable German code, the main focus of the biopic – Turing – was as much of an enigma as the code he was trying to solve. He held countless secrets, from the classified military work he had to conceal to his homosexuality and all the things in between, there’s very much that we (historians included) still don’t know about him. Even in the storytelling method as mentioned above, the concept of separating Turing’s life into three separate timelines rather than telling his story chronologically still fits very much into the puzzle motif, for it forces viewers to solve the puzzle that is Alan himself to learn about his life.
Another constant motif that runs throughout the film is the notion of “man vs machines”, or rather, how humans are similar and dissimilar to machines. Throughout the film, there are hints of how Turing isn’t quite “human” in how he works almost mechanically to build his machine, and how he prefers the company of “Christopher the machine” rather than his team. There’s a slightly Aspergic quality to his character (although historians cannot actually confirm whether he was Aspergic), exaggerated by the scriptwriters and Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him, that makes him less like us and more like a machine. This all culminates in an incredibly poignant scene in which Turing compares himself and others who are – like him – also on the fringe of society to machines. When the police officer (who presumably led to his eventual persecution and death) questioned him about machines’ ability to think, Turing responds with something that truly struck a chord with me – he explains that machines don’t think the way that the majority of humans do, and hence they don’t “think” in our technical sense of the word, yet machines do have some forms of processing ability and as such, he questions if we should reject computers as being non-human simply because they think differently from the way us humans do. In the scene, not only do the writers parallel Turing’s non-conventional beliefs and lifestyle to the machines he built, they’ve highlighted a message that I just can’t stress enough – that other thoughts, beliefs and cultures and no less than one’s just because they deviate from the majority. For those beautifully written lines, I’d be more than wiling to pay another twenty dollars to take my family to the cinema to watch the film with me such as to ingrain that message in their heads.
Speaking of which, there are several other notable splendid lines, the most significant being this:
“Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
(Who knew mathematicians could be this poetic?)
This line was repeated thrice in the film between several different characters, and it was also written as the last spoken line – the trigger that brought audiences to tears, that is, if watching the genius who was supposed to be celebrated as a war hero regress into solitude and depression in the final stages of his life hadn’t already done that. In that scene, following the condemnation and punishment he had to face, Turing (like many others who don’t seem to fit into conventional expectations and stereotypes) mentioned to Joan Clarke that he wished he could’ve been ordinary. It was such a painfully heartbreaking scene because there was the man who accomplished nearly impossible feats, who saved countless lives, made discoveries that eventually led to the creation of our modern computers, condemned and maltreated by the unjust law to believe that he would’ve been better off being “normal”. It didn’t help that the subtitles in the final scene revealed that Turing died (presumably committed suicide) a year later. It was this injustice that Turing had to face that left many of the film’s viewers in utter shock and disbelief, and for my best friend and i, inexplicable anger. I suppose the worst part about it being a biopic was knowing that none of it can be changed or rewritten because all the injustice happened to an actual person, unlike with fictional stories in which we can easily rewrite the ending with our imaginations, a la fanfiction.
While TIG excelled in its storytelling, The Theory of Everything had – if I may say so myself – rather mediocre writing. The style of writing was clean and simple, presumably reflecting the nature of the family life this Hawking biopic specifically focused on. Despite this, the mere chronological depiction of the story that many already knew didn’t seem to work as well as expected since audiences could anticipate what was to happen based on what we’ve known about his life. As such, the pacing seemed rather slow, but I suppose some can argue that it works in the favour of its subject matter since it more accurately depicts the slow and gruelling challenges that not only Stephen Hawking himself, but also and especially Jane, had to go through in their twenty-five year marriage. Not only that, this chronological perspective also allows for viewers to realise the passage of time while they’re watching the film, since time is one of the main concepts of Hawking’s theory (which comes into play spectacularly in the final scene.)
Yes, I suppose TIG had the benefit of telling a story centrally set in the background of the Second World War, which hence contributed to the excitement and anticipation the viewers had – I was so pumped with adrenaline when Turing and his team broke the code that I was literally on the edge of my seat – whereas The Theory of Everything centered on domesticity and the unspoken tensions between Jane and Stephen Hawking, in relation to his work and achievements. Another thing to consider was that the creators of TIG did take liberties to dramatise Turing’s story to play up certain aspects of his life such that universal themes and ideas could shine through, whereas the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking had to be told more accurately to remain respectful to the subject matter, who had both endorsed the film. Ultimately, regardless of which route the storytellers have chosen to take, they have clearly displayed the greatness of the men the films are about.
For the aspects The Theory of Everything lack, the creators make up for it with the stunning visuals. While its script doesn’t hint at symbolic features as clearly as that of TIG, the visuals in The Theory of Everything played a huge part in drawing a link between the two different strands of the plot in the film. On one hand we have Stephen Hawking’s private life with Jane Hawking, and on the other hand we see bits of his academic work, and there are several blatant visual cues that draw the parallels between Hawking’s abstract theories about the universe (spacey-wacey, timey-wimey stuff) and his private life. That way, the visual capturing of his private life with Jane allows viewers to understand what would otherwise be painfully difficult concepts in quantum physics. For example, you get Jane running circles round Stephen in the early stages of their relationship, the artistically crafted shot of milk swirling around in Stephen’s coffee, as well as the fireworks at his college’s May Ball, all illustrating his beliefs about the creation of the universe from nothing and the eventual collapse of the black hole into nothingness. (Or something of that sort, I don’t really get the science even though I’ve tried to read up on it!!) The most impressive visual cue was probably in one of the last scenes which I shan’t spoil too much, but there’s basically a quick rewind of the entire movie in about a minute or so, in which his life is completely reversed, like how time is reversed in what he speculated would happen in a black hole. While these visual allusions were awfully clever, some casual audiences (/coughs/ my mom /coughs/) might miss them. (The thing is, my mom relies on the subtitles a lot since she doesn’t understand English very well, so some nuances might just fly over her head because it’s not translated very well in the subtitles.)
Moving on from the crux of the film to the acting, I’d first have to say that the actors in both films were so brilliant, but while I’ve been rooting for Benedict Cumberbatch all through the awards season, I suppose Eddie Redmayne did deserve his Golden Globe for best actor since the role proved to be much more challenging for him than Turing was for Cumberbatch. Physically, I would suppose that Redmayne had to contort himself in a wheelchair to capture the likeness of Hawking, which wouldn’t have been very comfortable for his body and face. Not only that, with the minimal lines was given, it was amazing how he managed to convey such intense emotions with the lack of words. There were so many silent moments between him and Felicity Jones, in which all the acting was simply carried out through their eyes and facial expressions. Honestly, you’d have to be a truly top-class actor to be able to pull that off. The same praise goes for Felicity Jones, who practically carried the entire film, since the story’s told from her perspective. The inner turmoil between how much she cares for Hawking and her exasperation at her family’s situation played out so wonderfully through her acting.
On the other hand, in TIG, we get Cumberbatch as Turing, a character that (despite his claims) seems rather like his famed portrayal of Sherlock. Of course, he acted incredibly well in his role as Turing, but it just doesn’t appear to be that much of a challenge to him. As for Keira Knightley, well, let’s just say I’ve been rooting for Keira to win an Oscar since she lost out for her role as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but the role of Joan Clarke doesn’t provide much range for her to explore, considering that she’s already played a female pirate, a psychopathic lover of Carl Jung, and countless aristocrats. With that being said, one of the most enjoyable things about watching TIG happened to be Joan Clarke, since she’s so understatedly intelligent while being so loveable and kind at the same time – you practically know from the moment she was mistaken for a candidate for the post of a secretary that you’ll be rooting for her throughout the film.
Character-wise, I really preferred Turing to Hawking, which probably also explains why I film one movie over the other, since Hawking (however brilliant he may be) seems like quite an arse in person. Or at least, that’s how Jane’s account made him out to be. His persistent rejection of Jane’s help and his unwillingness to thank her for her help later, despite all that she’s sacrificed for him, makes him seem slightly egoistical and in all honesty, rather misogynistic. In contrast, while Turing was initially written to be slightly arrogant and straightforward about his exceptional intelligence, it’s portrayed in such a way that reveals how he is unable to understand the nuances of typical speech, and this eventually becomes a rather endearing quirk in his character. When Turing later interacts more with coworkers upon Joan’s urging by giving them apples and telling them a joke (albeit really horribly), you know that that’s when everyone in the theatre’s completely won over if they weren’t before – there’s something so sweet and pure about his child-like quality in that scene because he still sees the world from his extraordinary point of view, unfiltered by the prejudices people bear when they get older.
Overall, my verdict of both films is simply that TIG’s a better film in terms of its storytelling and hence entertainment quality, but in other technical aspects that I suppose the voters of the Academy may judge the actors, films by, TIG, unfortunately, lags behind just a little.