When you’re at a film festival, you live for those moments of certainty, the sense that you’re watching something that clicks, that connects, and that matters, either to you or the popular culture at large. They don’t come too often. I can still recall coming out of a theater at Sundance after seeing a daytime screening of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” blinking in the sun with a handful of other slack-jawed media folk as we tried to process what we’d just seen.
Toronto hasn’t offered that sort of A-level epiphany (yet), but two less rarified movies have come reasonably close. “The Last Five Years” is the most emotionally satisfying experience I’ve had at this year’s festival — yes, an adaptation of a musical; yes, starring Anna Kendrick — and in its small-scale way it’s possibly the best stage-to-film musical adaptation of the entire post-”Chicago” boomlet. The Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” is so successful at pushing every damn Oscar button imaginable (true story of famous person, check; struggles with physical infirmity, check; transformative performance by lesser-known young actor, check; so British it hurts, check and double-check) that it’s easy to imagine the Academy collectively wetting itself with happiness. It also happens to be a pretty good movie.
You don’t really have to be a musical theater junkie to like “The Last Five Years.” I mean, if the form makes you cringe on general principle, by all means stay away. Myself, I think that once you get past Sondheim, everything in the genre should be rated on a 1-to-10 scale of jazz hands, from actively toxic to exceptionally tolerable, like hot sauce or how much pain you’re feeling today. This particular show, written by Jason Robert Brown, ran off-Broadway in 2002 and again last year, and it comes with a glib Sondheim-esque gimmick: The love, marriage, and separation of Jamie and Cathy are dramatized both forwards (his songs) and backwards (hers), with one rapturous duet when they cross in the middle.
Director Richard LaGravenese -- that old softy, and here it helps -- brings the play off the stage and into the air of approximate reality. The songs are sung in Manhattan living rooms and by the shores of lakes, on subways, street-corners, in bedrooms, and at book readings. The first two numbers, “Still Hurting” and “Shiksa Goddess,” bring us indoors, exchanging the stage’s formal frame for the unexpected intimacy of movie close-ups. It works surprisingly well. Then the third song, “See, I’m Smiling,” takes place on that sunny lakefront, and you briefly think, Ooh, I don’t know if I can take this much artifice for 90 minutes.
But “The Last Five Years” quickly rights itself. Jeremy Jordan (currently starring in “Finding Neverland” at the American Repertory Theater) puts across both Jamie’s likeability and his critical self-absorption, and Anna Kendrick is, well, a star. When I saw her in 2003’s “Camp,” looking like a drowned Yorkie and singing the hell out of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” I knew she was going to be something -- as if anyone could stop her -- but I didn’t figure she’d draw attention for her dramatic skills before her musical talent. But where do you get to sing in the movies these days? In “Pitch Perfect,” true, which has made her a cult figure to a generation of middle- and high-schoolers, and probably in the upcoming “Into the Woods,” where she plays Cinderella.
Still, this is the one that’s going to do the trick, I think, because Kendrick is so very much there as Cathy, a struggling actress with self-esteem issues and a husband whose success crushes her bit by bit. She doesn’t have one of those big, robust Broadway voices but rather a heartfelt keening that threatens to go whiny and instead opens up to levels of pitch and feeling you didn’t expect were there. I think Kendrick’s a good dramatic actress. I also think that when you add singing to the equation, she becomes something potentially unique: the first bona fide movie-musical star of her generation.
“The Theory of Everything,” by contrast, is a much easier sell -- so easy, in fact, that it’s easy to get cynical about it. Director James Marsh -- who detoured into documentaries for a while with “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim” before returning to drama with the solid, little-seen “Shadow Dancer” (2012) -- tells the story of physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), focusing on his relationship with wife Jane (Felicity Jones) from their Cambridge youth to their break-up in the mid-1990s. (Hawking subsequently married and divorced one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, played in the film by Maxine Peake.)
The film is teddibly, teddibly British, at times self-consciously so. When Jane’s mother (Emily Watson) advises her depressed daughter to join a church choir, Jane replies “I don’t think I’ve heard anything so English in my life.” But it’s gorgeously shot (by Benoit Delhomme) and the early sequences movingly show how the romance between Stephen -- a giant, playful brain in a reedy body -- and the quietly strong-willed Jane is tested by his diagnosis of ALS and what then seemed a short-term death sentence.
“The Theory of Everything” rolls along predictable (if very glossy) tracks, and it’s not until the midway point that you notice the movie’s telling Jane’s story as much as, if not more than, her husband’s. (The film’s based on Jane Hawking’s 2007 memoirs.) It’s a drama about sublimating oneself completely to love and duty and three children and a man with an immense mind (and ego, it’s implied) and a failed body. About what that might do to a person’s spirit over the long haul.
Most people know Redmayne as Marius in “Les Miserables” or as the besotted assistant in “My Week with Marilyn,” but that’s not entirely fair; smaller movies like “Savage Grace” (2007) and “The Yellow Handkerchief” (2008) give a better idea of his mercurial talent. He’ll be tossed the expected acting nominations for his work here, may win some, and will deserve what he gets, since he gives the young Stephen a charming mixture of ambition and sweetness and completely convinces as the older, more celebrated Hawking. He gets past the pop-culture iconography of this singular figure and conveys the man locked inside his body and his legend. You forget it’s a performance, and that’s what matters.
Yet Jones provides the film’s emotional through-line, and the scenes between Jane and an idealistic choirmaster (Charlie Cox) who offers a forbidden alternative to Life with Stephen just wreck you in their fully felt stiff upper lip-itude. (Not since Trevor Howard met Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter”... well, not really. But it’s fun to pretend.) And I don’t think I’ve seen a moment that risks and rewards an audience’s sympathy as strangely as the scene where the couple comes to the precipice of their tottering marriage and Stephen can only speak to his wife in the flat, synthesized tones of a computer. You almost laugh at the absurdity of it. And then you weep at the absurdity of it. I’m not sure how far “The Theory of Everything” will go in the annual awards horse race -- at this point, probably pretty far. I do know it took the audience in Toronto to unexpected and memorable places.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Jason Robert Brown.