Battle of the British Biopics: Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game

Below is The Spin on three end of the year awards hopefuls…all British biopics about tortured geniuses that when viewed together represent the best and worst of classic Oscar-bait.

Mr. Turner

First up is the finely pedigreed Mr. Turner from Academy darling writer/director Mike Leigh detailing the waning years of famed eccentric proto-Impressionist maritime artist J. M. W. Turner.  The film contains a lot of what one comes to expect from a Leigh project: Timothy Spall superb in the lead role, gritty yet refined attention to realism, fantastic supporting turns from a sometimes improvising cast, and excellent dialogue (the dark, dry, British humor runs delightfully amuck here).  The film also contains some surprises, most notably the perfectly lit cinematography from Dick Pope who photographs the film like a moving painting, masterfully capturing the scenes and environments (the approach of a retired warship he would later paint coming into harbor while Turner and his friends row out to meet it is fantastically rendered) that inspired Turner’s art.

The film, naturally, is slowly paced which will drive some people to complain in clichéd fashion that it’s like watching paint dry.  The characterizations are unsympathetic and the film has no plot – it simply details from point A to point Z the sometimes awkward, sometimes miserable, sometimes wondrous and strange progression of Turner’s later years as he loses his beloved father, draws both cheers and ire from royalty and the public, evolves his painting style, and eventually shacks up in secret and dies alongside a caring widow who lodged him for many years at his favorite seaside getaway and later in a shared home in Chelsea.  Mr. Turner, in the end, plays to the mind and imagination over the heart, keeping its subject matter at a distance, like a rendering on canvas – and it ranks comfortably in the middle of Leigh’s ever-amazing film canon.

Theory of Everything

Next up is the muddily wrought and shockingly unenlightening The Theory of Everything.  Poorly lit and edited, this detailing of superstar theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s marriage to Jane, suffers from surface-level treatment of the subject matter, poor dialogue, pedestrian direction and shallow views into what made this couple tick.  We see how they meet, they flirt, and then suddenly he is stricken and they are madly in love.  This leads to a strained marriage where she sacrifices everything for him while he completes his life’s work and eventually he asks for a divorce after falling in love with his predatory nurse.  The film paints Hawking as a narcissist and Jane as a twit, yet supposedly this was supposed to be some grand love story?  The performances are strong as both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones make the most of the maudlin material and benefit greatly from playing a physically crippled genius and his long-suffering bride (two classic Oscar baiting roles).  I was left wishing for a better screenplay for them both that would’ve delved more deeply into Hawking’s work, his illness (how did he survive so long when he was supposed to be dead after two years with ALS?), and Jane’s motivations.  Ultimately, Oscar-winning documentarian James Marsh makes an inauspicious dive into drama that has been wrongly heralded as auspicious, and The Theory of Everything shows just how lazy and uninspired films can be when they follow the Oscar baiting by the numbers.

The Imitation Game 2

Lastly, we have an Oscar-baiting British biopic that follows the same formula as The Theory of Everything but does so perfectly and hits all the right notes (even the prerequisite Alexandre Desplat score!).  The Imitation Game is a war-time thriller and a biopic of a tortured soul rolled into one taut, well executed,two-hour film chock full of intrigue, true drama, deep explorations of characters and fantastic performances.  Benedict Cumberbatch (who for my money should get the Oscar) is the mathematical genius and closeted homosexual Alan Turing who was hired by the British government to decrypt the Nazi Enigma machine (work that would later lead to the world’s first computer).  The supporting cast around him is top-notch with Mark Strong especially strong as the MI6 agent overseeing the clandestine project, and Keira Knightley is the best she has ever been as the smart woman who became part of the boy’s club and would become one of Turing’s closest confidants.   The script does an excellent job showing us Turing’s childhood (which is capped by a frightfully sad moment that is handled with a decidedly quiet, stiff-upper lip making it all the more tragic) and a later post-war investigation into his “indecency”.  Thus a man forced by society to hide his true self, in the middle of these indignities, becomes the perfect person to crack the secret Nazi code that would help the Allies win the war.  It’s a wonderfully realized and full character arc – and the essential component that elevates this British biopic over the others nipping at its heals.  The Imitation Game, in a bit of deceptive daring, goes for the heart over the mind.  Morten Tyldum’s entry for the Academy is by no means a ground-breaking film, but its a damn good one that shows just how entertaining these formulaic Oscar baiting biopics can be.

Final Spin:

The Imitation Game is a cracking good show that could be taking the biscuit this year.

Mr. Turner is a bit of the curious ol’ “Oh, ‘Ello, Guv’ner?”

And The Theory of Everything is absolute bollocks…total pants, if you will…all sixes and sevens…see?

Written by David H. Schleicher

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7 comments on “Battle of the British Biopics: Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game

  1. Prakash J says:

    Nice spin! I can’t wait for The Imitation Game to release here.

    ROFL on your summation: “…And The Theory of Everything is absolute bollocks…total pants, if you will…all sixes and sevens…see?”

  2. ccyager says:

    Haven’t seen the other two, David, but I saw “The Imitation Game” last weekend and agree 100% with your review. I was quite taken by the elegant structure of the narrative, the way in which each new visit to one of the time periods adds another layer of depth and more insights. In Cumberbatch’s more than capable hands, Turing becomes a multifaceted human who struggles like the rest of us to be in this world. The ending could have been really maudlin, actually, and I’m so glad it wasn’t, although it hit my heart all the harder as a result. Mark Strong was just amazing, I thought, imbuing his character with unpredictability, almost pleasant ambiguity, and intense secrecy. I’m sure his Stewart Menzies knew exactly what kind of man Turing was long before he arrived at Bletchley. I do think Cumberbatch deserves Oscar recognition for this performance.

    Happy New Year!
    Cinda

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