Trailer Face-Off: The Theory of Everything vs. The Imitation Game

Published August 21, 2014

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: two biopics about brainy Brits.

The HistoryThe year is 1964. A promising young scientist working towards his PhD in physics meets a promising young literary scholar working towards her PhD in Spanish poetry. The couple—Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde—begins a whirlwind romance, until everything changes with a single diagnosis. James Marsh’s new film The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) as Hawking as he learns he suffers from ALS, a disease with a life expectancy of two years. He and Jane (Felicity Jones) nevertheless marry and start a family as Hawking pursues his research in cosmology, all while his body gradually fails him, putting strain on both his relationships and his career. The film focuses on the relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking, based on Jane’s memoir, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. It portrays Hawking even after his physical strength has gone and he is confined to a wheelchair—when he resorts to a computer to communicate and interact with his family.

Norwegian director and writer Morten Tyldum makes his English-language debut with The Imitation Game, another biopic about an intellectual Englishman, this time Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film is named for Turing’s test for artificial intelligence, but it focuses on his skill as a codebreaker, which he employed during the second World War in order to crack the Nazi Enigma code. Enigma was a seemingly unbreakable cipher the Germans used for communications during wartime. Like The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game begins while Turing is still in school and traces his personal and professional struggles. His carefully curated team of logicians race to break the code and win the Allies an enormous advantage in the war. His team includes Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), as well as a host of other chess players, mathematicians and linguists—anyone who might have insight into cryptic communications. But the film doesn’t stop there. It also portrays his downfall following the war, faced with criminal charges for homosexuality. The Imitation Game appears wholly darker and less optimistic than The Theory of Everything, but seems to give its protagonist a realistic side that lacks in the mythological romance of Hawking’s narrative. Advantage: The Imitation Game

The ManFew scientists are as visually recognizable as Stephen Hawking, who may be as well known for his disease as for his mind. Director Marsh (Man On Wire) consulted historical references, including Hawking’s wedding photos, to inform how he portrayed the character on screen. And Eddie Redmayne, who shined as Marius in Les Misérables and was nominated for a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for his role in Red, is certainly a skilled enough character actor to take on the part. As Hawking, Redmayne becomes a vibrant but awkward intellect, complete with thick-framed glasses and, later in Hawking’s life, a cane to support him as his motor function began to give out. He’s entirely convincing (especially when seen alongside real photos of young Hawking) and is already garnering Oscar buzz for the performance.

But Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave, Star Trek Into Darkness) proves worthy competition as the leading man in The Imitation Game. He has ample experience playing the hyper-intellectual as the titular character in Sherlock and the scheming villain Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. (Coincidentally, Cumberbatch also played Stephen Hawking in 2004’s Hawking.) Like Redmayne, Cumberbatch has the theater recognition to lend credibility to his performance—perhaps even more so, as his brief stint playing Hamlet in London next year has already sold out. From all appearances, his is a subtle performance that evokes the troubles of a brilliant mind living with demons. After two years of chemical castration as sentence for homosexuality—when this was a criminal act in the United Kingdom—Turing committed suicide in 1954. While both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything follow great minds confronting enormous obstacles, The Imitation Game again seems to provide a bit more psychological depth to its protagonist, who is both the hero and the victim of his own story. Advantage: The Imitation Game

The IntellectBoth films offer main characters with enormous intelligence and originality. But while The Imitation Game advertises Turing as having invented the world’s first computer, Hawking’s research on the very origins of the universe has a more profound impact on the essence of scientific inquiry today. Advantage: The Theory of Everything

Budding Romance?From all appearances, Stephen Hawking’s relationship with Jane was love at first sight. The trailer conveys the tenderness of their love and determination against adversity. She supports him and his work as his body gradually gives way to his disease. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) has played the devoted love interest in the past to much acclaim and, with the help of a talented costume and makeup crew, her resemblance to the real Jane Wilde is uncanny. But it remains to be seen whether the film will also trace the collapse of their marriage. It takes on a substantial risk by idealizing the romance between two living characters who have gradually revealed their all-too-human flaws in the wake of the time period on which the movie focuses.

On the other hand, when the beautiful young logician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) beats Turing at his own logic puzzle, what could have been a spark of romance fizzles out before its time. “What if I don’t fancy her in that way?” a beleaguered Cumberbatch asks of one of his comrades. The personal and professional conflict for Turing in an engaging way—the man seeks out romantic fulfillment but must keep much of his life under wraps. Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom during Turing’s life, forcing him into privacy. So while Turing throws his endearing half-smile at Clarke, this is just a hint of intimacy from an otherwise reticent and conflicted mind. There’s more than a hint of self-loathing in Cumberbatch’s performance, evidence of the profound impact of societal judgment on his mental state.Advantage: The Imitation Game

Behind the ScenesDirector James Marsh, the man behind The Theory of Everything, was responsible for Academy Award-winning documentary Man On Wire. While he has more experience working with documentaries than with narrative films, he knows how to tell an engaging but historically accurate story that is missing in many biopics (for example, the upcoming Nina Simone biopic has been oft-criticized for its star, Zoe Saldana, who little resembles the singer whose life she’s meant to channel). The screenplay was inspired by Jane Wilde’s autobiography about her marriage to Hawking and has been in progress by screenwriter Anthony McCarten for 10 years. We’re certain that, with that kind of a timeline and the experience behind it, The Theory of Everything will do justice to the illustrious scientist’s life. Like the Hawking movie, The Imitation Game is based on a book—Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges—and its screenplay was placed on the Black List, a list of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts, in 2011. But on the other hand, The Imitation Game is Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s fifth feature film, and his first English-language movie. He has a taste for thrills, having directed an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s novel Headhunters, but lacks the experienced eye behind The Theory of Everything. Advantage: The Theory of Everything

The Verdict Both films will premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. Both focus on the lives and history behind two of science’s biggest names. But preliminary looks at both films indicate The Imitation Game has more psychological depth, its characters more flawed, than The Theory of Everything. Both are worth a watch, especially for a vivid narrative on an otherwise dense historical figure. But The Imitation Game focuses on a lesser-known character and its cast appears more promising, putting it ahead of The Theory of Everything in our to-watch list. Winner: The Imitation Game