Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything
Directed by: James Marsh.
Written by: Anthony McCarten based on the book by Jane Hawking.
Starring: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Harry Lloyd (Brian), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), Simon McBurney (Frank Hawking), Lucy Chappell (Mary Hawking), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose), Simon Chandler (John Taylor), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason). 

In Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time (1991), the famed documentarian took the life and work of physicist Stephen Hawking, and combined them to make a fascinating documentary – one that takes Hawking’s ideas seriously, and connects them to his life – including his affliction with Motor Neuron Disease, which slowly took over his body, combing him to a wheelchair, and eventually even claimed his ability to speak. The one thing the disease could not take away from Hawking was his extraordinary mind – and the documentary was remarkable in how it was able to combine his ideas with his life. In James Marsh`s The Theory of Everything, Hawking’s ideas are not really given all that much screen time – there is a lot of talk about how brilliant Hawking is, but very little about why he was so brilliant. Instead, the movie plays like a more typical, inspirational biopic – showing Hawking’s 30 year marriage to Jane Wilde, and how her strength pushed Hawking to keep on going, to not give up on his body, so that his mind could still function. That’s enough to make the movie good – and the two lead performances are great to be sure – but it’s not enough to make the movie great. For that, the movie would have had to delve a little deeper than it does.

The movie opens in the early 1960s, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a doctoral student at Cambridge, brilliant, but somewhat scattered – he can do all the impossible questions his professor asks him, but has no idea what his doctoral thesis is going to be. He is also blissfully unaware that his body is about to betray him. It’s here he meets a fellow student – Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who is studying poetry, and although the two seem like complete opposites – he somewhat shy and awkward, her composed and demure, he a committed atheist, her a loyal member of the Church of England – but of course they fall in love. It’s while at school that Hawking is first diagnosed with ALS (fortunately for him, it wasn’t that – just a disease closely related to it) – and he’s given two years to live. By now, he has hit upon the idea of black holes, circling back time and the Big Bang. If he only has two years left, he wants to spend it working – he tries to get Jane to leave him, but she will not. She loves him, and she is a lot stronger than she looks.

The two lead performances are the reason to see the film. Redmayne has the showier role, and he nails it. He is great as we watch as Hawking’s body slowly betrays him – as he moves less and less, his body slowly becomes more contorted, his facial expression becomes more fixed, and his voice gets slower and slower. It is an immensely physical performance – even more so the less Hawking can actually move. Redmayne gets the big and the little things right. Jones has the less glamorous role to be sure – but she may in fact be even better, showing both the strength and fragility of Jane. She doesn’t make her into some sort of self-sacrificing saint – but rather a woman who loves her husband, and no matter what frustrations loving him entails, she is willing to stand by him. Her relationship with another man is not presented as tawdry – it’s not even sexual for quite some time – but she certainly needs someone to lean on – and she finds it. There are other elements I liked about the movie as well – Benoit Delhomme's beautiful cinematography, full of blue hues, and earthy tones is wonderful, the score Johan Johannsson may underline the emotions a little too much, but is still quite beautiful. They help the two leads performances to be sure – but the performances remain the star of the show.

What’s missing from The Theory of Everything is anything really complex. The movie doesn’t delve very far at all into Hawking’s theories – I guess it assumes you already know them, or else you just don’t care. And the marriage between Hawking and Jane is perhaps the most British marriage I have ever seen in a movie – even when these two fight, they do so without raising their voices, without any harsh words or frustrations. Even the end of the marriage is so quiet that it barely even registers that it is over. The movie is based on one of the books that Jane wrote after her marriage to Hawking ended – one wrote after some time had passed. She wasn’t nearly as generous right after their marriage ended. I’m not saying the movie had to portray Hawking or Jane as the bad guy, or the good. But I do think the movie doesn’t quite get how a long term marriage works – the ups and downs. The movie lacks any real urgency.
But the two lead performances are great – and for that, the movie should be seen. It’s just that the life and work of Stephen Hawking could make a great movie – in fact, Errol Morris made that movie 23 years ago, and it easily remains the definitive Stephen Hawking movie to date.

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