I didn’t cry in Toy Story 3. I didn’t cry in Up or in Les Miserables. I absolutely despise The Notebook.
Yes, I know, I have no heart and I’m a robot and whatever else you want to say. But seriously, I am not a person who cries in movies. I can count on my hands how many movies have moved me to tears. However, I sobbed uncontrollably for over two hours during and after The Theory of Everything. Never has a film caused such a reaction from me. And it’s not for the reasons the filmmakers wanted. It’s also not the reasons you’re likely thinking as well.
The filmmakers wanted viewers to cry over how heartbreakingly wonderful their portrayal of science genius Stephen Hawking’s life is. They wanted me to marvel at the man who overcame adversity to achieve so much. They wanted me to weep as he succumbed slowly to such terrible disability. None of these were even remotely why I was crying in the film. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I cried because this movie hurt me in ways I can’t even begin to describe accurately. I can only describe it as a deeply personal pain, and maybe that doesn’t give me the right to compare this film with a far better one, The Imitation Game.
Why do I want to compare these two films, which seem so different? Actually, they aren’t so different when you take a look. They both came out around the same time, about two real men of incredible intelligence who faced overwhelming odds of some description. They overcame the obstacles in front of them, and in doing so, changed the world in some way. But The Imitation Game, in my opinion, is far more successful as a movie and from a character/story point of view.
Maybe I’m being silly and overreacting. Or maybe there’s really something in here that is worth exploring. Keep in mind that this is all opinion based and naturally, there will be spoilers.
Stephen Hawking vs. Alan Turing
I’m not talking about the actors here. They don’t really have much to do with this. But to be clear, both Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch gave exceptional performances. However, the way their characters were written is uneven to say the least.
What I got out of Theory is that Stephen Hawking is a god among men and can do no wrong. I don’t claim to speak for Stephen Hawking but I do wonder how he feels about his portrayal in the film as a flawless individual. Yes, I’m dead serious. I didn’t see any character flaws in the film, and I’m sorry, but no human, however intellectually brilliant, is perfect. He’s so perfect, there’s really nothing to say about him as a character. At all.
Alan Turing on the other hand, is not perfect, and the film does not pretend he is. They do not gloss over his character flaws. Benedict Cumberbatch even said “There’s no vanity about him….incredibly direct, quite rude and disrespectful of authority, very smart and very funny,” By all accounts, Turing was very difficult to work with. He was socially awkward, and not in the adorable Zac Braff kind of way. He didn’t know how to interact with people. He didn’t have many friends. He wasn’t charismatic, or the life of the party. This is all in Imitation and it doesn’t make him unlikeable or a bad person. It makes him interesting, human, and relatable to the audience, far more so than Stephen Hawking’s portrayal in Theory.
In terms of Hawking’s disease, we only ever see how it affects him physically, and in incredibly large doses. How many montages does it take to see his decline, movie? The only time we ever see his personal decline is when he is first diagnosed, and it’s only for a few minutes. Then, nothing but the physical effect for the rest of the film. His achievements are almost glanced over in favour of lengthy montages and scenes between Jane (Hawking’s first wife) and Jonathan (the man she eventually marries). Every scene, from beginning to end, is about his disease. When not directly about it, every moment either foreshadows or references the fact that he is sick. And that’s fine for a little while, but I wanted to see how he got past it, or at least, about his family. But no. Theory claims to be about Hawking’s personal life, but there’s a large portion of the movie where his children simply disappear. And most of the dialogue between Jane and Hawking?
Jane: I need help
Hawking: No you don’t, we’re fine.
Jane: Yes I do.
– End scene, Lather, rinse, repeat for the second act –
Interestingly enough, Stephen Hawking himself doesn’t like to talk about his disease because he wants to be known for what he’s accomplished. He doesn’t want to become his illness, and you know what? Good for you Hawking. Yes, you have a terrible condition, but it does not have to define you.
Turing in Imitation is not defined by his social awkwardness or more importantly, his sexuality. It’s certainly addressed, and addressed VERY well, but it’s not the focus. The focus is what he and his companions did. And because the film isn’t interested in bashing the viewer over the head with what Turing suffered for being gay at at time when homosexuality was illegal, it’s more compelling to see how tragically his story ended because we grew to like him and admire him for refusing to give up against impossible odds. And the movie doesn’t shy away from giving credit where it is due to the other people on the team. The team Turing worked with are well portrayed and feel like real people.
What I also loved is that when Enigma was cracked, it wasn’t bunnies and rainbows from then on. The credits didn’t start rolling. The reality was that cracking the code wasn’t the end of the war, and many lives were still lost. Imitation wasn’t afraid to show the truth, the reality and full consequences of war.
Jane Hawking vs Joan Clarke
Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) spends the first third of the movie claiming she can handle Hawking’s illness, despite everyone telling her she’s insane. The second act, she begins to crack. By the third act, she’s gained feelings for another man and leaves. Now, I did the research after the film and it turns out Hawking actually left Jane, but apparently she really did struggle with the nature of Hawking’s condition and loved another man for years. Hawking, in all his perfection, is never anything but a victim, and that doesn’t seem right to me. Jane is shown as selfish and, in the end, weak. This seems like an unfair portrayal to me. From the outside, it would appear both Jane and Hawking were difficult people in a lot of ways, but to place all the blame on her? No, movie, you don’t get to do that.
Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) on the other hand is a far more compelling woman. She was in a man’s world and faced prejudice and lower pay than the men, but again, THE FILM DOESN’T FOCUS ON IT. She’s interesting because she keeps fighting for what they’re doing: decoding Enigma. She’s interesting because doesn’t dig in her heels and complain about the lesser conditions she endures. She’s smart. She’s strong. She’s keen for more knowledge and she has a good heart. Even after everything she and Turing go through, and even though he lies to her, she looks past that and goes to him years later when he’s facing chemical castration, and gives him the encouragement he once gave her.
There’s a beautiful scene at the end of the film where Joan affirms to Alan of the lives he saved because of what he did. “If you wish you could have been normal, I can promise you, I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t,”
This is such a rare message in films, and one that needs to be heard more. And coming from such an interesting and strong woman, it’s heartening to see.
“I’d like to thank the Academy…..”
My main problem with Theory of Everything is that it’s one of the most award-hungry films I have ever seen. It is shaking the Academy by the shoulders, screaming for Oscars. While watching the movie, I played a fun game of Spot the Oscar Bait. There were so many attempts to gain nominations in almost every category. Best Actor/Actress is of course a no-brainer. It’s a biopic for crying out loud, and that automatically makes it a candidate for Best Picture. But take a look and you’ll see a bid for Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Costume Design, Best Screenplay, Best Director; the list goes on. I didn’t feel like there was passion to show a man’s life here. I saw a movie that was so desperate for recognition it missed the entire point of what it was claiming to fight so hard for: a fascinating human being who has changed science in spite of this disease which should have been a death sentence.
The Imitation Game on the other hand, seemed far more interested in telling the story than salivating for trophies. All the elements were there to gain nominations, and the writing was beyond deserving of the Academy Award, but it didn’t have the sheen of awards being the goal. The point of the movie was to tell a fascinating historical story. There was so much respect for the people they were portraying and the truth of the story. It wasn’t about political messages, being anti-war, or about LGBTQ issues, important as they are. It was about a man who, against the whole world telling him he was hopeless, useless, and of little worth, who defied the odds and broke the unbreakable code, bringing WWII to an end much quicker and essentially, inventing the computer that I now type about him on.
You may be thinking I really hate The Theory of Everything. And the truth is, I don’t. I don’t even necessarily see it as a bad movie. It’s not. There’s a lot to admire in the film, and Eddie Redmayne was certainly worthy of his Oscar win (though I’m still holding out for DiCaprio and Cumberbatch to someday get the glory they deserve!). But when placing these films side by side, The Imitation Game pole vaults over Theory of Everything in my mind. The characters were more interesting and human. The story was clear and with a humble purpose. The message was superior and the themes relatable.
But if that’s the case, what was it about Theory of Everything that made me cry so hard when other famously emotional movies have failed?
Well, without wanting to get too personal, my beloved grandmother suffered from polio (contracted before the vaccine was invented) and Multiple Sclerosis, and tragically died from the disease five years ago when I was seventeen. Much like Motor-Neurone Disease, MS is a mystery illness with no cure, treatment, known cause and with very similar symptoms. Watching a movie which so heavily focused on such a similarly debilitating disease was like watching her decline all over again, and I just couldn’t cope. But much like Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, Grandma did not let her illness define her. She got on with life in the best way she could and I never heard one word of complaint out of her mouth.
I believe that had I not had such a personal background to the story, then maybe I would feel differently. But who knows?
All I can really say is, go see both movies and draw your own conclusions. You may agree with me, you may not. But remember, as The Imitation Game says, “Sometimes it is the people who no-one imagines anything of, who do the things that no-one can imagine,”