Review: The Theory Of Everything



Defying the Laws of Physics

[Continuing Our 2015 Academy Award Roundup]

A Film Review of The Theory of Everything


Yet another period piece about a British super genius is up for a series of Academy Awards including best picture this year.  The Theory of Everything is an indie biopic (with Hollywood level production value) that tells the tale of Stephen Hawking based on the first hand written accounts of his wife, Jane.  Hawking is globally known for his contributions in the field of physics, but perhaps more so for the physical status that his motor neuron disease has restricted him to.  The man in the chair with the robotic voice has been a concept that has been the subject of pop cultural mockery as well as productive social and scientific discussion.  Yet, his journey from seemingly healthy Cambridge student to the man he would become has never absorbed into the mainstream.  This film does an excellent job at giving the audience an abridged, but emotionally poignant vision of his young adult life amidst the framework of a love story with his wife to be. 

Presenting the film in this manner allows director James Marsh to make the story more accessible to a wider audience not necessarily interested in scientific jargon and intellectual rhetoric.  Yes, Hawking is a scientific genius, but the man’s impact on the world is more than just numbers and theories.  Thus, we see Hawking in love, with his family and struggling to balance it all with his research and his disease.  It does much to humanize the often seen as “larger than life” Hawking because more people can identify with family struggles and illness than the thermodynamics of singularities.  What follows is an endearing tale of determination as every new chapter in Hawking’s life is sideswiped by another segment of his body breaking down and the effort made to overcome it.  What makes this film more artistic than a History Channel documentary is the fact that cinematographer Benoit Delhomme decorates his frames with dynamic angles and lighting to artificially infuse some magic behind the mystery of Hawking’s life.  The filmmakers are attempting to link the almost otherworldly sight of Hawking’s mind with the imagination of the viewer not necessarily to demonstrate how alpha humans’ take on the world is innately superior, but that different perspectives can be inspired from the most unlikely of circumstances.  Being able to recognize these brief moments in time and seizing them represents some of life’s most magical instances of serendipity. 

Unlike fellow best picture nominee The Imitation Game, this film is not being mired with inauthentic accounts or some other form of historical heresy.  Naturally, it helps any biopic if the bullet points of history are altered as seldom as possible, but creative license is inevitable as the adaptation is only undertaken for its potential for profit.  This film had the blessing and approval of the Hawking family, and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in particular were given personal, first hand confidence by Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde respectively for their efforts made in this endeavor.  Not every biographical adaptation has the luxury of having this level of contact (if at all) with the original subjects, but this is the kind of credibility that is all but infallible.  Granted, even this film is not perfect regarding the presentation of every fact and detail, but the spirit of authenticity is maintained throughout.

As with almost every other nominee for best picture this year, there is a noteworthy absence of action and this always has the potential of losing an audience regardless of the content, context, genre or scope of any film production.  By “action,” I don’t necessarily mean explosions, combat, gunplay or violence in some form.  Movement within the frame and/or movement of the frame can do much to keep our eyes stimulated and our minds more focused on the narrative as a result.  A movie completely devoid of movement may be an experimental videographer’s wet dream, but isn’t a particularly satisfying or effective “moving picture.”  Action in The Theory of Everything literally starts off at the races, but is in a constant state of decay from the film’s very first minutes until the final credits roll.  Obviously, the content of this film parallels this imagery and must therefore disallow any semblance of acrobatic choreography for its characters within the frame.  Perhaps the frame itself could have been moved a bit more with tracking shots, pans and tilts as some form of compensation?  There’s a difference between dramas and “dialogue-driven” dramas and the visual presence of action is that difference.

Besides Patricia Arquette’s performance in Boyhood, Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Jane Wilde (Hawking’s first wife) is another marquee performance by a female lead in the films up for best picture.  I must admit to not having been blown away by this year’s leading ladies overall, which I also admit is a loaded statement considering the male centric nature of filmmaking as an art form.  Besides films like Gone Girl and Still Alice (projects completely centered on the performance of the female lead) women have been completely overshadowed by their male counterparts.  This easily could have been the case for Felicity Jones as her costar is portraying Stephen f*ing Hawking of all people.  However, Jane is a character that cannot be ignored as she becomes the audience’s anchor to the emotional toll diseases like ALS has on the families of the diagnosed.  Jones is masterful at morphing from love struck innocence to burned-out housewife with such subtlety, that the audience is barely aware at her character’s shift in status.  Jane begins every bit the wide eyed, eager youth and matures into a confidant and competent woman at her wit’s end thanks to the path she willingly chose years ago.  Look for even greater performances from Felicity Jones in the very near future.

Now I’d like to introduce you to this year’s Academy Award winner for best actor in a leading role:  Eddie Redmayne.  He may not be the best looking actor out there, but he has the true performance skills to discover a character, make it his own and then make it connect with his audiences.  Seeing some of the stills from the film paired side by side with actual photographs of Hawking at the time is almost shocking how the hair, costume and make-up teams transformed Redmayne into a virtual doppleganger.  Eddie displays the same command of the scene, intimate facial expression and eye piercing charisma of every other esteemed actor nominated for Oscar gold, but the one thing that separates him from everyone else is the physicality he demonstrates in his role.  Wait, what?  Physicality?  Isn’t Stephen Hawking that wheelchair guy?  Yes, yes, we’ve been through that, but the fact remains that Eddie Redmayne does not have ALS and the conscious physicality required of him in every scene that calls for the virtual deletion of parts of his body as the film progresses is immense.  We haven’t seen a performance of such titanic disempowerment since Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.  Towards the end of the film, when Hawking is at his weakest, Redmayne is working his hardest.  No other actor has reached this level of intimacy with his or her character on film this year.  The only thing that could possibly prevent his victory on Oscar night is politics.

The Theory of Everything is a fine film that showcases some very impressive filmmaking despite a very meager budget of $15 million dollars.  Those interested in learning more about Stephen Hawking, the man (as opposed to the science) should certainly check this out at your earliest convenience.  Eddie Redmayne delivers a great performance for a great role and it isn’t to be missed by any who claim to be fans of the cinema.  However, I would not pick this film as a favorite to walk away with the grand prize of best picture overall.  Other films (American Sniper and Boyhood) have made equally meaningful commentary on life but have done so with significantly higher entertainment value.  The Theory of Everything is a film that can be appreciated by anyone, but may not necessarily be for everyone.