From 1992’s Chaplin and The King’s Speech in 2010, to the biopics that received multiple nominations this year at the Academy Awards, films based on factual characters intrigue us and never go out of fashion. The Danish Girl and Black Mass from this year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as Florence Foster Jenkins which will be out next year, are all proof of this.
The term ‘biopic’ refers to a biographical film, not a documentary. Such films are criticised for moving away from the accurate picture to present a more attractive version of things. However, whilst some biopics do veer too much away from historical accuracy, a certain amount of creative freedom is to be allowed. After all, we are watching a feature film. It would be impossible to go into every recent biopic’s inaccuracies, so I opted to zoom in on two films whose stars vied for the coveted gold statue Oscar this year. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
The Imitation Game
Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a British cryptanalyst who helps crack the Nazi code and aids in the Allies’ victory over Germany. Contrary to Cumberbatch’s interpretation, Turing was not a rude loner and quite well liked at Bletchley Park, just as he was not in conflict with Commander Denniston. In the film, Turing and Denniston (Charles Dance) are forever at odds, with Denniston made to appear as an unlikeable baddie. The family of the now deceased Commander has objected to the way he has been portrayed in the film.
Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) and John Cairncross (Allen Leech) are historical figures who were not working on Turing’s team in real life. Meanwhile, whilst Turing was really engaged for a while to a Joan Clarke, portrayed in the film by Keira Knightley, she never visited him at his house during his probation following the trial for indecency in 1952. The film implies that Turing built the machine that cracked the Enigma code from scratch. In truth, Turing developed a machine that was a major overhaul over one previously invented by the Polish, and it was Harold Keen from the British Tabulating Machine Company who designed and constructed the engineering work involved. Gordon Welchman, never mentioned in the film, further refined the machine. Furthermore, the machine was never called Christopher, as the film states! Rather, Turing’s code-breaking machine was called Victory, and later, the newer version incorporating Welchman’s diagonal board was christened Agnus Dei.
The Theory of Everything
In this drama portraying the life of Stephen Hawking, described by Professor Hawking himself as “broadly true”, Eddie Redmayne went to great lengths in accurately presenting the collapse of Hawking’s body into total paralysis. Nevertheless, some facts have been distorted in this biopic too.
The film suggests a fall at university led to Stephen’s diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, but in truth, Hawking was at the time little concerned and received a second tumble that knocked out his front teeth. He later fell down a flight of stairs, losing conscience. Still, it was his father that made him see a doctor when he turned up at the family home already slurring his speech and visibly shaking. Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) had not really started dating Stephen when he was diagnosed with ALS.
He was never rushed to hospital from a concert in Geneva either. Rather, his friends were worried about his cough and got a doctor to diagnose Stephen. Found to be suffering from pneumonia, he was put on a ventilator for quite a few months before finally getting a tracheotomy. Simultaneously, the film shows us Jane on a camping trip with Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), leading to a suggestive scene that questions Jane’s fidelity towards Stephen. This scene is pure fiction and in her memoir, Jane suggests that she was faithful to Stephen till the end of their relationship. The reason given in the script for Jane’s absence from the flight to Geneva is her phobia of flying. In reality, Jane overcame her phobia before that fateful trip.
In the film, shortly after this event, Jane and Stephen split up and both soon settle in with their new partners. But real life is never easy and the break up was not the amicable separation we see on screen. The two ex-partners only eventually renewed their friendship for their children’s sake. Yet, it is true that Jane accompanied Stephen when he was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour, because in real life he had received the honour in 1989, before their split in 1990.
Can you mention other biopics which aren’t all that true to reality?
Let us know in the comment section below!