Two Intelligent Men

Two films on two British geniuses

Two recent releases, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, offer glimpses into the lives of two British geniuses, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. With the exposure of Turing’s homosexuality, I expected that narrative to have more emotional intensity and a more clearly articulated point of view. I was wrong.

As Hawking says in one of the final scenes of the film when asked if he believes in God, which most of his research has seemed to open the possibility of, “To live is to have hope.”

The Imitation Game, based on the story of Alan Turing, exposes the difficult balance faced by those who have the power to decide who lives and who dies. During World War II, Turing worked at Bletchley Park as a code-breaker for the British. It was here that he developed the machine that would break the German Enigma ciphered codes, a feat that is credited with ending the war several years earlier. Turing’s ideas and work have been influential in the design of the computers we consider part of our everyday lives.

The film creates tensions that apparently didn’t exist in real life by making Turing a real outsider who didn’t understand humor, or how to engage socially. The real team that worked on the machine did not have the tension the film uses to keep the viewer engaged.

The film suggests that those who are different will be able to imagine what no one else can. But if you are different it is also much easier for you to be suspected of other things as well. The film again adds tension with Turing’s uneasy agreement not to turn in a Russian spy, who threatens to expose his homosexuality if he reveals his presence. It is these manufactured tensions that may actually mar the film.

In the movie the policeman who learns of Turing’s homosexuality failed the Turing test—he was more like a machine following the law than a human who can make a complex decision about what was right. Before him was a man whose work saved an estimated 14 million lives, and he couldn’t make the right decision. This particular scene likely was a filmic device used to tell the story rather than based on the real events. Spoiler alert: Turing’s conviction and the resulting sentence of chemical castration is shown by the film’s director to lead to Turing’s suicide. A casual search of biographic information suggests that he may not have committed suicide and that he was not depressed by his circumstances.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as Turing, does an excellent job and will likely be nominated for awards, but if you want to see an amazing acting performance I suggest you grab a seat for The Theory of Everything. Eddie Redmayne, as Stephen Hawking, does an outstanding job portraying the gradual decay of Hawking’s body. With a limited range of motions he is still able to let us see into the spirit of Hawking. The twitching eyebrows, the suggestion of a smile, the small hand movements, and the eyes all tell so much.

This movie doesn’t need to contrive to make Hawking an outsider or to create tension; the challenge of his life is enough. Jane, who chooses to marry him, when he is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease that will likely end his life within two years, is played with marvelous nuance by Felicity Jones. As the two of them fight the disease, you see frustration, of course, but you also see the joy of discovery, the playfulness of Stephen and the absolute loving care of Jane.

While his body provides the obvious challenge in the film, so does the navigation through their evolving relationship, including raising three children, writing books, Stephen’s growing fame, and both of their desires for academic discovery and validation.

The scene I found the most painful was when Stephen told Jane he had asked the nurse to accompany him on his trip to America. She is devastated and confesses that she has tried as hard as she could. We certainly believe her, given the evidence of the movie. I can still see the confusion in her eyes, but what is less clear is why it happened. Was it because Stephen was releasing her to care for her own needs, or following his own desires, or . . . ? The unexplained nuances of the narrative make this a much stronger film than The Imitation Game and overall a more satisfying film to watch.

As Hawking says in one of the final scenes of the film when asked if he believes in God, which most of his research has seemed to open the possibility of, “To live is to have hope.” Stephen, after all these years, is still on the search for the equation that explains everything in the universe. You won’t find the answers in the film, but you will be inspired by the story to see the hope that comes with every sunrise.

Both films are worth seeing, but The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film to start your new year.

The Imitation Game is rated PG-13.
The Theory of Everything is rated PG-13.