How many British biopics will fit into this year’s Oscar race? The Toronto Film Festival revealed not only Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game,” but Eddie Redmayne as cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” (Oddly, Cumberbatch played Hawking in rather similar 2004 BBC flick “Hawking.” Full movie and trailers are below.)
Who’s going to win this particular match-up? It’s close, and will depend on the usual factors: reviews, box office and year-end support from critics groups and guilds. Both are exquisitely crafted period pieces, which the Academy crafts branches tend to admire.
A third Brit biopic, Mike Leigh’s gorgeously precise “Mr. Turner,” which won best actor for Timothy Spall in the title role at Cannes, may be shoved to the side as the result of this sexier match-up, even though its period visuals are even more sublime. Sony Pictures Classics will campaign for it, but the film is not new news at the fall festivals.
Eight reasons why “The Imitation Game” is a strong awards contender:
1. The backer. Harvey Weinstein is mounting a full court press on the level of TWC’s Oscar-winning period biopic, “The King’s Speech.” And so far TWC doesn’t have that much else going on, so they’ll push relentlessly on all fronts.
2. The hero. Many people don’t know the compelling, recently revealed history of Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing, who single-handedly saved the Allies by staying ahead of Hitler’s every move in World War II.
3. The star: Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance has earned raves. Turing is a complex character, a brilliant, off-putting, yet vulnerable mathematician who’s always the smartest person in the room–but he doesn’t work well with others. Cumberbatch, 38, is a respected character actor who thanks to TV series “Sherlock” has built a rabid following (often called Cumberbitches). He is poised to earn his first Oscar nomination.
4. The heartstrings: Turing is an outsider not only because of his smarts but because he is gay; he’s a lonely, unsung hero who is discriminated against and threatened with prison time. He didn’t earn the kudos he deserved for his heroic accomplishments.
5. The costar: His best friend is a brainy woman mathematician (supporting actress candidate Keira Knightley) who loves him, even if sex is not part of the equation; she’s married to the work as much as he is. She acts as a buffer between him and the other Enigma code-crackers. Knightley is ready to earn her second Oscar nomination after “Pride & Prejudice.”
6. The script: Because the movie combines all these story threads, its complex script by Turing obsessive and rookie screenwriter Graham Moore should earn a nomination.
7. The director: Successful in his native Norway, Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”) makes his Hollywood debut here, so he is not an established member of the Oscar club.
8. The reviews: So far it’s at 82% on the RT Tomatometer.
Eight reasons why “The Theory of Everything” will give “The Imitation Game” a run for its money:
1. The backer: Top Brit producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title are Oscar perennials (“Les Mis,” “Atonement,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “Anna Karenina”) who will push Universal’s Focus Features to give the Oscar campaign everything they’ve got. Although now run by new chief Peter Schlessel, who is not an awards veteran, Focus Features still boasts the same sophisticated marketing and awards team, although they have new distribution execs.
2.The hero: This compelling history is far better-known and more familiar (see Errol Morris’s “A Brief History of Time” and the BBC movie below). Stephen Hawking, now 72, is heroic because he seeks to redefine the theory of relativity, black holes, and the physics of the universe. He wrote the crossover bestseller “A Brief History of Time.”
3. The star: Eddie Redmayne’s performance has earned raves. Hawking is a complex character, a brilliant, witty and vulnerable mathematician who’s always the smartest person in the room–his joy and humor inspires others to admire and support him. Redmayne, 32, is a respected character actor (“Les Mis”) who twisted his body and researched Hawking and ALS; he’s ready to earn his first Oscar nomination. See Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot”; on the other hand Fox Searchlight’s campaign for John Hawkes’ extraordinary performance as a polio victim in “The Sessions” didn’t make the Oscar cut in a competitive year, which this is shaping up to be.
4. The heartstrings: Hawking is an outsider not only because of his smarts but because he suffers from motor-neuron disease ALS, which atrophies his muscles until he is wheelchair-bound and can hardly talk. He winds up using a motorized chair equipped with a computer and voicebox. He adapts and perseveres with the help of others and has earned many awards and plaudits for his work.
5. The costar: His best friend is his wife Jane Hawking, an equally heroic and brainy Modern Language professor (Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy,” “The Invisible Woman”) who marries the scientist even after his ALS diagnosis. Their romance produces three children, as his sexual functioning is not governed by the part of his brain that ALS has damaged. She supports his work, but struggles heroically to take care of him and run the household, while seeking help from a friendly choirmaster (Charlie Cox of “Boardwalk Empire”) who becomes a member of the family. She acts as a communicator and enabler so that Hawking can interact with the outside world. She literally saves his life. Jones is ready to earn her first Oscar nomination.
6. The script: A more straightforward biopic, “The Theory of Everything” is adapted by Hawking obsessive Anthony McCarten from Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking.”
7. The director: Successful in his native UK, documentary and fiction veteran James Marsh (“Shadow Dancer,” “Project Nim”) directed Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” about tightrope walker Philippe Petit. He’s a respected industry insider and member of the awards club.
8. The reviews: So far it’s at 77% on the RT Tomatometer.