Friday, September 12, 2014

Oscar's Battle of the Brits: Pals Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne Vie for the Gold

Marlow Stern
September 11, 2014

With their towering performances in a pair of biopics, Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the two lads are earning serious awards buzz out of Toronto.

Cumberbitches and Redmaniacs, rejoice: You've got a pair of awards contenders on your hands—err… minds.

For the uninitiated, the Toronto International Film Festival is, aside from being one of the largest, most overwhelming film fests in the world, fertile ground for Oscar bait. The proof is in the poutine. American Beauty, Ray, Black Swan, and The King’s Speech, to name a few, all bowed in Toronto, and all received Academy Award wins for their stars. Most of the acting buzz at the ’14 edition of TIFF has concerned the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne in a pair of biopics that were practically stitched by hand in a clandestine awards factory beneath the Dolby Theatre.

Let’s start with the stronger of the two. In The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, a math prodigy and cryptanalyst who’s tasked by Prime Minister Winston Churchill with leading an elite group of code-breakers at Hut 8—a sector of Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Their mission is to break the Nazis’ Enigma code, their highly encrypted and presumably indecipherable method of communicating with their naval fleet via radio transmissions. “We’re going to break an unbreakable Nazi code, and win the war,” says Turing.

Directed by Morten Tydum from a screenplay by Graham Moore, the film chronicles Turing’s tragic life (via flashbacks) from his days as a bullied, reticent budding genius who falls for his boarding school classmate, to his World War II heroism, to the subsequent witch hunt in the days after the war that leads to his 1952 conviction on the grounds of “indecency” for engaging in a homosexual tryst—illegal in the U.K. until the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalized homosexual behavior. Turing was offered the option of two years in prison or oestrogen injections—tantamount to chemical castration. He opted for the latter, and two years later, took his own life by ingesting cyanide.

Another role Oscars were made for comes courtesy of Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. The impressively-coiffed Brit plays renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who fused the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics to create groundbreaking studies on black holes and gravitational singularity theorems. At the age of 21, while studying cosmology at the University of Cambridge, he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease—or ALS—and given two years to live. Hawking slid into a deep depression, but was brought out of it by his girlfriend Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) who proposed marriage and gave him something to live for.

Directed by Oscar winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, the film is more of a straightforward biopic that traces Hawking’s relationship with Wilde at Cambridge, his groundbreaking work in the field of theoretical physics, and his gradual physical decline—first losing his ability to speak, followed by near-complete paralysis. Though Hawking slowly loses control of his physical faculties, his mind remains sharp as ever, and Redmayne captures this with his boyish charm—the twinkle in his eye, and his self-effacing brand of humor. And the 32-year-old Brit, who coincidentally graduated from Cambridge himself with 2:1 Honours, does a superb job of navigating Hawking through his physical deterioration, including his slide into depression. The scenes between Redmayne and Jones where the latter party struggles to pull him away from the edge are masterful.

Of course, Redmayne also positively looks the part, and his portrayal of Hawking during the latter stages of ALS—the impaired speech and mannerisms—is spot-on.

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