WRITTEN REVIEW – The Theory of Everything (2015)
The Theory of Everything
Directed by: James Marsh
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake & Charlie Cox
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Release Date: January 1st 2015
The life story of Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s smartest human beings and world-renowned physicists and cosmologists, seems like a recipe for perfect Oscar-bait. It’s about the story of a man overcoming unfortunate circumstances, set in England (very important touch) and based on a true-story. The awards practically hand themselves out. It would be so easy on the part of director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten to simply transcribe his incredible life and call it a day, but ‘The Theory of Everything‘ goes for the smarter approach.
Very fitting considering the fact that this is a Stephen Hawking movie.
‘The Theory of Everything‘ is based off the memoirs of Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane; “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen”. As a result, this movie seemingly about the life of Stephen is more about Jane than anyone. After all, behind every great man is a great woman.
‘The Theory of Everything‘ follows Stephen Hawking’s life from his first meeting with Jane Wilde whilst studying at Cambridge University in the early 1960s up until after the publishing of his book “A Brief History of Time”. The movie should practically write itself with a Cambridge Student studying science, meeting his future-wife before being told he has two years to live after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or Motor Neurone Disease – the reason you were tipping ice-buckets over your head in 2014). Of course, being an inspirational true story, Stephen has not only lived beyond those two years (his 73rd birthday is next week) but he fathered three children with Jane, earned his doctorate and then lost the use of his vocal chords after a forced tracheotomy in the 1980s which resulted in him using a voice-machine to communicate.
So yes, this man’s life is worth re-telling.
But James Marsh, not content with a simple biopic, honestly portrays Stephen Hawking’s complicated relationship with his first wife, Jane who, despite getting second-billing on the poster, is the true star of movie thanks to her portrayal by Felicity Jones. Jones gives Jane a stoicism, but endearing warmth that makes her one of the best female characters on-screen in a long time. There’s a temptation to write supporting female characters as a surrogate for the male-lead and that it’s through them they are given a cause in which to be heroic (see Fantine in ‘Les Misérables‘) but that’s ‘The Theory of Everything‘s quietly brilliant hook. The two first meet with polar opposite ideologies and when Stephen is diagonsed with ALS the two vow to make the most of their two years together and get married.
But Stephen keeps on living.
That’s inspirational on the part of Stephen, but for Jane, she finds herself with more then she could have ever bargained for. Jane becomes Stephen’s full-time carer and starts to sacrifice her life and her own dreams and ambitions for him and her children. A weaker movie would have painted her as a perfect and noble saint for doing this, but instead ‘The Theory of Everything‘ shows Jane’s regrets, her temptation towards other men and her slowly having the spirit drained out of her. She unconditionally loves Stephen and her children but there are some scenarios in which love does not always conquer. ‘The Theory of Everything‘ gives audiences one of the most authentic and true love stories in modern film and that truth comes from dissatisfaction. Audiences frequently don’t want the truth in their romance media which is why terribly trite romantic-comedies continually get made; because audiences like the reassurance and the status-quo. But that’s not how the world is.
But what’s equally brilliant is that you never feel resentment towards Jane. You go through this journey with her and utterly sympathise with her position why simultaneously finding her admirable for continuing to fight. While the old-age make-up on Felicity Jones doesn’t look very convincing towards the end of the movie, Felicity’s eyes and expressions sells the life of a person that’s been drained by commitment.
Of course, most of the attention in ‘The Theory of Everything‘ has been given to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the famous professor and for very good reason. It cannot be understated how brilliant Redmayne is in this role and how unrecognisable he is, especially towards the end when you stop seeing the actor and see the true-life figure in his face. One of the biggest hurdles with portraying a sufferer of ALS on film is that it’s a progressive disease with numerous, complex stages and since most films are shot out-of-sequence Redmayne must change his physicality from scene-to-scene. You can see the detail in his performance in chronological order as certain muscles stop functioning at different stages of his life and as his speech gradually slurs.
I always try to resist using this term, but Redmayne’s performance truly is a “tour-de-force” (urgh, I hate that phrase) and towards the end when he has to solely communicate through half-smiles and his eyes, it becomes clear that we’re seeing a career-defining performance. Stephen is also well written in ‘The Theory of Everything‘ to reflect his well-known sense of humour and impeccable wit as he lives up to his “rock-star” status. Despite having his voice taken away from him, Stephen is a man with mastery of words – helped by his automated voice machine where he starts off by typing four words a minute or where he can choose a pre-determined answer.
Which makes it all the more powerful when his marriage starts to break down and the camera is over Stephen’s shoulder showing him scrolling through all the pre-selected answers in his computer screen but none of them are adequate.
This is Redmayne’s and Jones’ movie, though there are some stand-out supporting cast members. David Thewlis is reliably charming and British as Stephen’s mentor at Cambridge and Charlie Cox smoulders his way through a pivotal and endearing role (he’ll be your Daredevil in Marvel’s Netflix series this year, by the way). One strange casting choice is Emily Watson as Jane’s mother and while she’s good in the part, Watson is too recognisable and distinct to have a small role like this. It comes across as stunt-casting more than anything. The stand-out supporting role, for me at least, was Stephen’s student friend Brian, played by an always underrated Harry Lloyd (trivia; he played Baines in ‘Doctor Who: The Family of Blood‘ and is the great-great-great Grandson of Charles Dickens). Lloyd doesn’t have a large role, but he nails some of the most important scenes of the movie and works incredibly well with Redmayne as a social, if not intellectual, equal.
‘The Theory of Everything‘ is confidently filmed and stylishly directed by James Marsh with enough flair and expansive locations to justify a big-screen release. A TV-Movie this ain’t with inspired touches such as cream being added to coffee morphing into a black hole, or the beautiful concert hall where Stephen is taken ill with pneumonia. Subtle lighting and filters are used to emphasise mood in the variety of locales that Stephen and Jane’s lives take them and just like the film’s themes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brilliant score bucks the Oscar-tropes trend by emphasising power and urgency as opposed to sentimentality. Sentimentality is present, but it’s deftly handled and confidently manipulated with incredible strings and an incredible sucker-punch of a bass.
Despite its title and its leading figure, ‘The Theory of Everything‘ doesn’t emphasise the science much. Though, to be fair, there probably wouldn’t be much of an audience for that as Stephen Hawking’s book, despite selling over 10 million copies, is thought to be one of the most abandoned books ever written. Instead, ‘The Theory of Everything‘ bucks media’s expectations of love and relationships by providing an effecting and honest insight into one of recent memory’s most unconventional romances. It takes an Oscar-baitey concept and contorts it into something genuinely exceptional and powerful but never saccharine.
It’s actually amazing that the movie wound up like this, because the trailers indicate a straight-forward, inspirational story about being able to overcome anything life throws at you. When David Thewlis states in the trailer “It has been a great joy to watch this man defy every expectation. Both scientific and personal.” it’s played like a genuine statement that’ll make audience members, jaded to this sort of topic in film, roll their eyes in resentment. But in the context of the movie that line is actually massively ironic as there are many personal expectations that Stephen and Jane simply could not overcome. Coupled with moments in the trailer of cutesy-poo Oscar-bait shots of the couple riding a Merry-Go Round whilst smiling or Redmayne seemingly channelling a “Simple Jack” vibe from ‘Tropic Thunder‘ (moments which are not in the finished movie) indicates that there is, indeed, a weaker Oscar-bait cut of ‘The Theory of Everything‘ out there somewhere, but the real (better) movie is the one that’s been released behind the backs of awards-hungry producers.
There’s always a problem with making a biopic when the people it’s based off of are still alive and potentially kicking when it comes to their portrayal on screen. ‘The Iron Lady‘ had this problem in 2012 when portraying Margaret Thatcher’s political life and it side-stepped all of the politics for fear of upsetting then then-still living Thatcher and her family. But ‘The Theory of Everything‘, despite being about people who are still alive and assisted with the the movie, doesn’t paint either of its leads as heroes or villains or as simplistic ciphers, but as human beings in love.
But sometimes, love doesn’t win.
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Posted: 3rd Jan 15