He probably sat in math class thinking, ‘There should be more math! This could be mathier.’
—Buffy in “The Dark Age” from Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
While biopics are a perennial Oscar favorite, it is still rather remarkable that two historical films involving advanced mathematics and scientific pursuits are competing for the top prize this year. While I had intended to see The Imitation Game (based on Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during World War II) and The Theory of Everything (based on the life of Stephen Hawking) when they came out, I didn’t run right out to do so. As it turns out, that was a pretty good judgment call on my part, as I liked but didn’t love each of these. That’s not to say they aren’t good films, but in a year where the nominated films include such creative visions as Birdman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, these just pale in comparison.
Still, The Imitation Game is the highest-grossing independent film of 2014 and received eight nominations so it deserves some attention in considering the Oscar candidates. This success reflects its solid cast and production values, but personally I was rather underwhelmed by the film. There were a number of clichéd scenes that I enjoyed (Joan “beating” Alan at the puzzle, Alan’s colleagues pulling a Spartacus, the “Eureka!” moment in the bar) but they were clichés. So it’s surprising (or is it?) that The Imitation Game’s best chance for an Oscar lies in its screenplay.
More importantly, it really bugs me how much of the “true story” they changed. While I’m the first to say one shouldn’t expect accuracy in a motion picture, there’s a limit to how much actual history you should change in the service of narrative. Even if I haven’t yet seen Selma, I know those distortions are nothing compared to what they did here. It is stunning to me how much outrage there seems to have been about downplaying Turing’s homosexuality (which I felt the filmmakers hit us over the head with) while these inaccuracies merited very little attention. However, at least these changes did serve to highlight the necessity for secrecy even after the end of the war, something that was never clear to me while watching The Bletchley Circle, and I was happy to finally understand.
In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Imitation Game is entirely shut out of all eight races it is competing in. [Note: I would be happy if Alexandre Desplat won for his score, since he is slowly becoming the Roger Deakins of the music category, but it seemed far too overbearing, despite some lovely bits that really did sound “computery.”]
The Theory of Everything is more of a romance than I expected. I liked it and thought it had some interesting cinematographic approaches; however, much to my surprise, I would have liked to have seen more math and science. The beginning was quite strong in this regard but that emphasis eventually made way for the story of the couple, which makes sense given that it was based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, but I thought the significance of Hawking’s work got lost in the shuffle.
While Felicity Jones acquits herself well as Jane, and the look on her face when Hawking tells her he will be traveling with his nurse is absolutely devastating, it is Eddie Redmayne that carries the film. If he wins an Oscar, it will be well deserved. The score may also take home the prize, but that’s mostly because the field of nominees is so weak. Where is Under the Skin? Snowpiercer? Heck, even the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had a more compelling score. And, as stated above, I’m hoping that Desplat will finally pull one out, either for The Imitation Game or Grand Budapest Hotel. [Yes, he’s competing against himself, or I do not think Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score would be favored here.]