Posted November 26, 2014 by editor in Film Reviews
 
 

The Theory Of Everything Review


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Take the life-story of a famous scientist with a crippling disease as told in the autobiography of his ex-wife (Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking). Add a cast of hot young British actors, an award-winning director (James Marsh), award-winning writer (Anthony McCarten). Top it off with some A-star cinematography and what do you expect to get? Heaps of praise, rave reviews, accolades, perhaps an Oscar or two. Especially once you find out that the film’s male lead spent four months researching his subject, watching every bit of video he could find. Without meaning to call into question Eddie Redmayne’s towering performance or his prodigious talent, given the competition out there, you would be shocked not to find an Oscar-worthy performance. Or a BAFTA, if you prefer. Or both. And Redmayne is superb as Stephen Hawking, tackling the physical, vocal and mental challenges of the part with grace and dignity. Comparisons with Daniel Day-Lewis are far from unwarranted. To watch an actor completely transform and disappear into his part is always a privilege. There is a moment pretty late into the film when, during a lecture Stephen is giving, a woman drops a pen. It is a wonderful but risky scene, and perhaps the most powerful testimony to the excellence of Redmayne’s performance.

The film’s focus is on Stephen and Jane’s complicated relationship, following Hawking’s diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It opens in Cambridge in 1963 when a young Hawking – pre-diagnosis – an unmistakeably brilliant student destined to do great things, meets Jane, a student of Medieval Spanish, and they soon fall in love. Felicity Jones as Jane more than manages to hold her own next to Redmayne, revelling in a performance that shines as brightly as his. Far from glorifying her subject, Jones portrays Jane as a passionate, fallible, and strong person in her own right, who has her very own tragedies and conflicting feelings to deal with.

However, given the number of Oscar-winning biopics that have flickered across cinema screens in recent years, hand on heart, you might also expect The Theory of Everything to be little extraordinary – a great film to be sure but perhaps somewhat formulaic. About that, you would be right.

Given its subject, you might expect it to be quite upsetting, the kind of film you will watch once and then never go back to because it’s just a little too heart-breaking. The DVD will remain on the shelf, unwatched. About that you would be wrong. For what is astonishing about The Theory of Everything is that it manages a surprising amount of lightness mingled with the gravity. When first diagnosed – a scene which in the film is shot in quiet close-ups without music, just a droning in the background that successfully conveys a sense of numb shock – Stephen is told that he has two years to live. This was in the 1960s when Hawking was 21 and, as the film’s end titles tell us, Hawking is still alive today at 72 and has no plans of retiring. Which should make it pretty clear that, ultimately, this is a film about extraordinary individuals beating the odds. As such, it has you leaving the cinema feeling rather more light-hearted than expected.

Costumes, imagery, characterisation, and direction are all solid. The strong support cast includes Harry Lloyd and Charlie Cox, who is not getting the attention his skill deserves. The film’s world feels lived in; there is a refreshing attention to detail often absent in modern cinema – or at least the kind of modern cinema that will appeal to a wide audience. This film clearly has more than niche appeal too. Comparison with A Beautiful Mind are perhaps unavoidable. As David Thewlis reprises his Harry Potter-type role of the kindly mentor, if we didn’t know what was going to happen, this might just turn into The Dead Poets Society. But we do know and the disease is there from the start, in close-ups of Hawking’s trembling and increasingly immobilised hands, laboriously writing on a black-board, signs of Stephen’s diminishing physical capabilities. Still, when the diagnosis hits, it does so painfully and cruelly; an unexpected and agonising tumble to the cobblestones that breaks classes and fractures cheekbone. Again, the score is minimal during the medical procedure that follows – exhausting tests that ultimately deliver devastating certainty. Enter Jane, who refuses to leave Stephen to his misery, and makes up her mind to defy the “science” that seems “stacked against” the two. The theme of science versus faith, played out in arguments between Jane and Stephen, looms large in the film. As Stephen is searching for one equation to explain everything, he himself becomes living proof that sometimes you simply can’t. It is to the film’s, Redmayne’s, and Jones’ credit that they allow us to see past the disease and never lose side of the extraordinary people and minds defying it. There is an impact in some scenes that cuts right to the viewer’s emotional core – the diagnosis, Stephen failing to get upstairs on his own with his small child observing him, Stephen and Jane breaking up, Jane saying good-bye to their friend, carer (and her potential love-interest) Jonathan – which, sadly, the film doesn’t manage to maintain throughout. Thus the motivation for some of the characters’ choices may be difficult to understand.

The brilliance of Hawking’s theory itself, the actual science, does not take centre stage. The Theory of Everything, in defiance of its title, is first and foremost a story about the relationship between two people and how it affects those around them. After all, it is based on Jane’s, not Stephen’s, book, adapted for some good, old-fashioned cinema storytelling, centred around a fascinating set of characters. The science is perhaps most evident in visual nods to Stephen’s fascination with black holes and the idea of winding back the clock to the beginning of time, expressed in the repetition of circular structures and movement – people dancing, milk swirling in a teacup, a spiral staircase, beer on a pub table – crafty hints that the macrocosm of the universe finds its equivalent in the various microcosms of the everyday life.

The Theory of Everything isn’t a perfect film in that it isn’t an extraordinary film. It might have focused a little more on Jane, herself an academic, and her struggle at raising three children while also caring for a severely disabled husband and keeping up with her own studies. Considering this is also a film about a theory of time, perhaps it would have benefitted from a little less linearity. Some of the prettiness makes you wonder how much the story glosses over the reality of Stephen and Jane’s marriage. More troubling underlying questions remain unasked.

Taken as it is, however, The Theory of Everything is an entertaining, superbly acted and surprisingly feel-good piece of cinema that has you deeply invested with its characters and, above all, the brilliant man that is Stephen Hawking. Yet once you have disembarked its emotional roller-coaster, the sense that there is something missing may just stick around, nagging.

Anne Korn


editor