Monday, November 10, 2014

New movie review: The Theory of Everything

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne star as Jane and Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

There is a great old Roger Ebert review of Ghost in which Ebert blasts the very foundation of the movie’s premise. I am sure you have seen the film, but briefly, Patrick Swayze plays Sam, who dies in the early going. He sticks around in the world of the living to keep tabs on and protect his girlfriend, played by Demi Moore – also to annoy Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for the film. There are love songs, humorous set pieces, other ghosts, and the implied existence of a heaven and a hell. All in all, it is what you would expect out of an early ’90s romance.

Ebert takes issue with Sam’s continued obsession with his still-living girlfriend. As a ghost, Sam has the mysteries of the universe at his fingertips, the answers to the big questions of life such as why we are here and where we are going, and he chooses to spend his time playing guardian angel to his ex. Put simply, the movie had all the potential in this and other worlds to be a measured exploration of life and the afterlife. Instead, it is a kind of treacly romance.

I found myself thinking along these lines while watching the far more accomplished but similarly problematic The Theory of Everything, which delves into the personal life of the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking. Based on the memoirs of Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane, to whom he remains close, the film is the story of their marriage. As such, it is a powerful look at the toll physical disabilities can have on personal relationships and a sad, stirring, and inspirational tale of what it really looks like to confront adversity.

Still, I cannot help but wish there had been more here to ponder. Hawking is a man – a real, living person – who has made the origins of the universe his life’s work. There is nothing supernatural about his story. Quite possibly, he is among the smart humans ever to live, and his insights into the world around us are the most salient we are likely to hear on the topic. Director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have the opportunity to provide a platform for those insights, but instead, they shift their focus elsewhere.

Work that has the potential to change the way we view existence is pushed to the background in favor of the sometimes messy marital arrangement of the central couple. In some regards, this is an unfair criticism to levy against the film. As evidenced by McCarten’s deliberate choice to adapt Jane Hawking’s “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” it seems the filmmakers are telling the story they want to tell. But, is this a story we need to hear?

Marsh’s film is stately, entertaining, and impressively mounted, but however well executed, inspirational romances are a dime a dozen. Good movies about extraordinary real-life figures overcoming disabilities are everywhere if you care to look. What none of the others has is Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything’s greatest asset is the brilliant mind of its main character, and the mishandling of that asset is a disappointment that looms over an otherwise quality picture.

The film’s best scene occurs about midway into its two-hour runtime. Jane Hawking is attempting to help her quite ill husband put on his sweater, and she hears their baby cry upstairs. She goes up to check on their child, leaving Stephen Hawking half in and half out of his sweater. He endeavors to complete the task but instead gets himself stuck. However, while looking at the embers burning in the fireplace, he has an epiphany that leads to a major scientific breakthrough.

We see the fire burning in his eyes, which transition to become the universe and the embers the bursting stars he studies. The sequence is one of the few times Marsh takes the film out of the drab, mid-20th century England of the story and shows the audience something else. It is brilliance itself sparking to life, and Marsh underscores it with the kind of visual panache missing from the rest of the proceedings.

At the same time, it is one of the rare moments when we witness the day-to-day struggle of their lives: Jane Hawking trying to dress her husband as her child cries out. Too often, the film relies on montages told through home movies to show the passage of time and the growth of characters and relationships. What it lacks are specifics, the kind of minutiae so well observed in the sweater scene that might better have sold the struggle of the Hawkings.

In the roles of Stephen and Jane Hawking are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Jones is impressive as the long-suffering wife who fights not to be consumed by either her husband’s disability or his academic successes. She is a brilliant woman in her own right, and Jones uses a light touch in painting a portrait of someone whose willing sacrifices have sidelined her ambitions. It is not a showy role, but Jones does enough to stand out against the towering presence at the center of the film’s universe.

That presence is Redmayne, and the only word for his work as Stephen Hawking is: revelatory. Redmayne nails the physical transformation of the part as Hawking’s body deteriorates due to an ALS-related disease. More than that, though, he taps into the emotional through line of an impossibly gifted scientist whose body betrays him but whose mind cannot be deterred in its mission. These kinds of roles are catnip for awards-hungry actors, but Redmayne never veers from the path of honesty and substance. It is an uncommon performance that brings to the screen the truth of the life of an uncommon man.

This is a universe of infinite possibilities, and that such a remarkable performance would end up in a film that is merely good should probably still be looked at as a great fortune for audiences. Hawking has devoted his life to studying the universe and what lies at its beginning. Other films have explored similar territory, and more will follow on that path. The Theory of Everything instead is drawn to the infinite possibilities of love, and maybe, that is as good a place as any to start.

See it? Yes.

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