If Telluride carried over the Cannes buzz for Steve Carell and Timothy Spall while extending the Venice pop for Michael Keaton and announcing the arrival of Benedict Cumberbatch to the hugely competitive 2014 Best Actor race, Toronto has brought a new wave of serious contenders in the ever-expanding field. Eddie Redmayne, Bill Murray and Jake Gyllenhaal: welcome to the party.
From my perch here in LA, I must admit I wasn't quite as taken with James Marsh's Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” as festival goers north of the border were, but I did respect its point of view. Less “greatest hits” (though certainly leaning on the usual tropes), it's a delicate, elegantly propulsive love story gorgeously rendered. Benoit Delhomme's photography (I must disagree with our Greg Ellwood) has that soft-light “Inside Llewyn Davis” luster that makes for more than a few pretty pictures, and indeed, Jóhann Jóhannsson's piano-heavy score is delightful.
But as Hawking, Redmayne will steal a lot of hearts, and it is indeed a remarkable trajectory. He gives the icon a sparkle throughout, from well-spoken doctorate seeker to afflicted sufferer (struggling through speech and movement) to, eventually, stationary trapped soul, straining to convey with the eyes and the aura. I'm tempted at times to consider it mostly a feat of mimicry in the end, but the truth is the performance sticks with you. Much of that lingering effect is owed to Redmayne's sparring partner on screen, Felicity Jones, but he embodies the spirit of the role with such conviction that it's difficult to just compartmentalize it. I would take nothing away from what he accomplished here.
Then there's Bill Murray, who joins “The Imitation Game” star Benedict Cumberbatch in Harvey Weinstein's stable of contenders in Theodore Melfi's “St. Vincent.” It's hard not to get a bit blustery by the end of this somewhat tidy, by the numbers dramedy, and I might even admit to being more impressed with Melissa McCarthy's surprising supporting turn (finally not leaning on a stunt), but you have to say this is Murray's best work since “Lost in Translation” over a decade ago. He carves out a piece of real estate in this film all his own in an ornery performance that sort of reminded me of the notes Al Pacino is playing in David Gordon Green's “Manglehorn,” but what's fascinating is the consistent information relay. As you learn each new detail about why Murray's eponymous Vincent is the way he is, the more enhanced the performance appears, filled in with layer after layer. It's a sure-fire Globe contender, if anything.
Finally, the dark horse: Jake Gyllenhaal. I've already written about how deftly Gyllenhaal gets under the skin of his creepy, ambitious character in Dan Gilroy's “Nightcrawler.” It's a performance worth pulling for in the race because it's so outside the generally agreed-upon standard for “prestige” or “awards” players. Sometimes those can land just right. Terrence Howard in “Hustle & Flow,” for instance. This is an exercise in control and building atmosphere with inflection and behavior, the kind of thing, surely, Gyllenhaal's fellow actors will appreciate. And it's really just another in a long line of stand-out portrayals from the 33-year-old actor. It's tight and finding room to maneuver is next to impossible, but the guy deserves to be in the conversation.
We haven't even gotten out of the early festival frame and I already feel comfortable saying four of the five Best Actor slots may well be spoken for. Of course, this time last year we might have said the same thing about a list of contenders that included Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, so you never know how things will shake out. There's a lot to come. Anyone looking to muscle in will no doubt need to bring their A-game, to say the least.