Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: "The Theory of Everything"

“The Theory of Everything” seemingly falls into the category of what I call “Great Man” movies, which are biopics of historically notable people that attempt to take you behind the public persona and get at the living person behind the façade. “Ray,” “Capote,” “The Iron Lady” are recent examples.

I generally relish these movies, though it seems like there’s a built-in ceiling on how good they can be. They’re usually anchored by an amazing, Oscar-caliber performance that dominates so much it tends to suck all the air out of the film. It becomes a showcase rather than a story.

“The Theory of Everything” has many aspects of the Great Man genre, including a turn by Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking that is sure to generate a lot of talk come Oscar balloting. It’s full of a lot of “behavior,” but also plenty of soulfulness.

But the film is also about Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and how they navigated their romantic lives around his crippling ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which left him confined to a wheelchair at a young age and eventually unable to speak. That’s not surprising, considering this movie is based on Jane’s book about their relationship, adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten.

Felicity Jones plays Jane, and if she’s not exactly Stephen’s co-equal in the film’s narrative focus, she at least holds her own in her scenes with Redmayne. Together they draw a portrait of love and sacrifice, of limitations both physical and emotional.

This is not so much “the Stephen Hawking story” as the story of the Hawkings.

Director James Marsh has toddled back and forth between documentaries (including the Academy Award-winning “Man on Wire”) and narrative features, and brings a sensibility of observation without trying to strong-arm the story into places where he might want it to go.

He focuses most of his attention on the early part of the Hawkings’ lives, starting when Stephen was a gangly British doctoral physics student who fell in love with Jane, a lover of languages. Even then, Stephen’s physical ticks hint at trouble to come, such as his scrabbly chalkboard writing of equations or the pigeon-toed walk that sometimes barely keeps him upright.

Harry Lloyd and David Thewlis are spot-on in smallish, tidy roles’ as Stephen’s gregarious best friend and mentor, respectively. Emily Watson is used poorly in a cameo as his mother; I suspect her part got cut down during editing.

Marsh and McCarten don’t get too deep into the woods of Hawking’s theories about black holes and the beginning of the universe, focusing more on the poetic aspects that work cinematically rather than the nuts-and-bolts of the actual theorems. It’s probably a wise move, but they stay so far away from the specifics of what made Hawking world-famous that it saps the character’s integrity -- we know he’s important because we’re told he is.

There are some bleak and beautiful scenes in “Everything” as we witness Stephen’s descent into disability, even as his mind reaches for the heavens.

I particularly liked the moment where he, having gotten around for years on a pair of canes, agrees to use a wheelchair. “It’s just temporary,” he stammers out in his warped speech, smiling at the lie he and his spouse have shared. There’s also the scene where he first uses the voice synthesizer that became Hawking’s trademark, joking that people will assume he’s American.

With three children and acclaim descending upon Stephen, they would seem to have all the ingredients for happiness. But the film shows how a life of total selflessness wears upon Jane, a burden she has taken on willingly but comes to resent. When a friendly face appears to help out, in the form of her choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox), she’s relieved.

Soon he’s incorporated into the family unit like a brother/uncle, and it becomes clear Jonathan and Jane share feelings for each other. Stephen, alert and observant, understands the dynamic and, through his passivity, essentially blesses it. What might seem odd or even perverse to some is rendered into unremarkable normalcy.

Most of the attention for “The Theory of Everything” will focus on the particulars of Stephen Hawking’s condition, and his bravery in rising above it. The real story, though, is about how one loves a great person who is not necessarily capable of fulling returning it, which is deeper and more interesting.

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