Thursday, 29 January 2015


Lose weight, win an Oscar. Gain weight, win an Oscar. Play a physically challenged role, win an Oscar. Play a mentally challenged (but not full retard) role, win an Oscar. It's a cynical way to view the art of acting, where the body is as much an instrument as the face and voice, but it's also undeniable: roles requiring physical transformation garner attention.

Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything, both contenders this awards season, are two very different films but the performances at the centre of both revolve around physical transformation.

In Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (Roadshow Films), a chilly, almost hermetically-sealed drama, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave; Olympic wrestlers who each won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Both actors give very physical performances, and not just in the scenes of actual wrestling training and competition.

Tatum, always a fine physical specimen, is here muscular in a granite kind of way, so much so that it effects the way he walks; stiff-legged and always front on. And even when he is still, his bottom lip juts out and his eyes are laser-focused on nothing, as though a hulking statue pondering its own existence.

Ruffalo, too, has transformed. He walks with a dragging of his feet as though always sidling up to an opponent, and when he stands, his body appears to lean in two different directions -- the top half forward, the bottom half back -- as though the years of wrestling have literally bent him out of shape.

Steve Carrell has also transformed for his role in Foxcatcher, and not just from comedic to dramatic actor (always worth an awards vote or two). As John Du Pont, millionaire heir to the Du Pont chemical empire, he sports a very noticeable proboscis (a fake nose will also get you awards attention). One doubts his nose is the reason he likes to be called 'The Eagle' by his friends (of whom he appears to have none); more likely the obliviousness and vanity that comes with the absolute power of old money and being surrounded by 'yes' men.

It's perhaps the same reason Du Pont decides he wants to train the US wrestling team for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and why he brings first Mark then David Schultz to his Foxcatcher Estate, a decision which you just know isn't going to end well. If you don't already know of the events which unfolded at Foxcatcher Estate in January 1986, Miller's icy, foreboding tone -- not to mention the foreshadowing introduction of a gun earlier in the film -- will have you suspecting that the story doesn't end with a medal ceremony in Seoul.

There are no guns in The Theory of Everything (Universal Pictures), a terribly British true-life drama, but you know exactly where this tale of the love between one of the greatest minds in human history, Stephen Hawking, and his wife, Jane, a doctor in her own right (and from whose book, Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, the screenplay is adapted), is headed.

Directed by James Marsh, better known for his documentaries including the Oscar-winning Man On Wire (2008), and the brilliant Project Nim (2011), The Theory of Everything charts the relationship between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) whilst simultaneously following Hawking's battle with the debilitating motor neurone disease.

Given two years to live when first diagnosed in 1962, Hawking goes on to write several books about time and the creation of the universe as well as father three children with Jane. Jane's own studies, into medieval Spanish poetry, are sidelined as she sublimates her intellectual (and sexual) desires to care for Stephen and raise their family.

Jones, a fine actress (see the wonderful Like Crazy (2011)), brings depth to the stoic Jane but not surprisingly, it is Redmayne's physical and, yes, transformative performance which is the film's centre piece (and the spearhead of its awards season campaign). Apart from looking remarkably like a young Stephen Hawking, Redmayne twists and turns his body from head-to-toe; a progression of contortions as the disease gradually takes everything from him -- including his voice, lost to a tracheotomy following health complications -- bar his beautiful mind.

Yet The Theory of Everything is as warm and fuzzy as Benoit Delhomme's cinematography, and not nearly as gnarly and complicated as its hero's (and heroine's) battle must have been. That's a shame, specially since Marsh's Project Nim was an unflinching yet humane look at a hero also at the mercy of forces beyond his control. (And no, I am not comparing Hawking to a chimpanzee.)

The performances in both Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything are all fine, with varying degrees of greatness even; the less obvious performances of Tatum, Ruffalo and Jones easily overlooked, however, by the more show-y ones of Carrell and Redmayne. At least we can be thankful that neither man, in his pursuit of that golden statuette, went full retard.

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