It’s the British invasion of the Oscar race. It’s only October and three British actors – Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Timothy Spall – are already dominating the Best Actor race. And each of them comes carrying a biopic on his shoulders: The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing for Cumberbatch, The Theory of Everything about cosmologist Stephen Hawking for Redmayne and Mr. Turner, a drama about the master landscape painter aka J.M.W. Turner stars Spall.
Biopics have always been one of Oscar’s favorite genres: Consider A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Walk the Line, The Last King of Scotland and Milk. It may have been The King’s Speech that inspired this outpouring of veddy veddy English movie, but while the current crop is similar in genre, they are not the birds of one feather. The actors may play real-life public figures, but their approaches to their characters couldn’t be more different.
Redmayne, 32, fresh off awards buzz for his singing romantic hero in Les Miserables, takes on the brilliant yet physically challenged Hawking. He told Yahoo Movies that he believes biopics appeal to actors and audiences because of “the cult of celebrity…We see images of people like Hawking, or Turing, or Turner, and yet, because we are all human, we’re aware that it can’t be as simple as it looks on the surface. Biopics reveal what grounds these stellar individuals as human beings rather than just as achievers.”
In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking begins at Cambridge – also the actor’s alma mater — before illness sets in. On campus, Hawking romances the pretty scholar (Felicity Jones) who will become his wife. But very shortly, Hawking’s fingers have trouble grasping a pencil, he trips over his own feet – and it is one long spiral from cane to wheelchair as ALS changes the course of his life. Despite this, he still authors the bestseller The Brief History of Time. This performance could easily be compared to the one that won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990.
Cumberbatch, 38, gives a complex emotional performance, where the intellectual’s scars are largely internal. The actor expresses every glimmer of feeling in his blue-green eyes, delivering brilliant line readings from a sharp script. He slayed me. The Emmy-winner best known for playing the TV’s sociopathic Sherlock Holmes takes on a figure less known in America than Hawkings, in a story with a less traditional arc.
Alan Turing, a brilliant and difficult puzzle-solver and Cambridge academic cracked the German Enigma code, playing a major part in defeating the Nazis in WWII. A homosexual, his greatest personal tragedy occurred in 1952 when Her Majesty’s government arrested him for the crime of gross indecency. Turing accepted chemical castration to avoid prison, only to commit suicide one year later. The bitter irony here is that his genius preserved democracy, but his own society failed him less than a decade later.
And then along comes Spall, 57, the classically trained character actor best known for playing Wormtail in the Harry Potter saga. (He also played Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech.) He brilliantly carries this Mike Leigh directed biopic of the Victorian landscape painter J.M.W.Turner. Spall has already won a Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal, an almost comic conglomeration of grunts, mutters, and grumbles roughly translated into English. While his Turner is far from eloquent or emotionally accessible – much less likeable – he is deeply human. Spall shows us a brilliant artist who creates transcendent work, even if his life is a patchwork of bullying and carnal urges and, now and then, genuine affection. Working in Leigh’s signature style, there is a feeling of improvisation to Spall’s performance, a looseness and spontaneity, as if the paint has hardly dried before they move on to the next scene.
God save her, the English monarch plays a role in all three features: Queen Victoria turns up at one of Turner’s art exhibitions only to fling insults at his canvases, Queen Elizabeth bestows an OBE on Hawking at the end of The Theory of Everything and, in 2013, she posthumously pardoned Turing from all charges of indecency.
Cumberbatch who, following rapturous reviews, will now be launched by The Weinstein Company on a Best Actor campaign, confided to Yahoo Movies: “The thing I’m interested in is that the buzz creates and generates an audience…I want a lot of people to understand Turing. Any attention that encourages people to get to know, understand and marvel and thank Alan Turing — at that whole strand of his all-too-brief life — is justification enough.”