Release: Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Directed by: James Marsh
If you want to talk ambition, meet British director James Marsh. He once thought it realistic to stuff everything Stephen Hawking-related into a two-hour romantic drama. There are obvious issues with such a strategy. Not so obvious perhaps are the compromises he’s made in producing something worth watching.
Or, maybe they are. Either way, it looks like it will still be some time before we get the definitive guide on the inner workings of one of the greatest minds this world has and likely will ever see.
Marsh (Man on Wire; Shadow Dancer) blends elements of the standard biopic with those of a romantic drama while infusing the production with at least the pretense of science. More often than not intellectual stimulation is sacrificed in favor of powerful emotional recoil at the sight of a body enduring prolonged deterioration. Yes, the experience fails to manifest as an interesting journey as much as a heartrending commitment to watching what we already are aware has happened. But it’s a perfectly inoffensive approach all the same.
Considering the number of similar films attempting to fashion glamorous takes on the lives of many an ill-fated genius or savant — Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind being one of the most memorable in recent years — it’s hard not to feel the nagging tension of having been there, done that this time around. Howard’s muse happened to be brilliant economist John Forbes Nash. The crux of that particular film revolved around schizophrenia and how it nearly eroded the passionate love shared between an ailing Nash and his fiercely determined wife Alicia Lardé. Fast-forward to 2014 and you simply change the variables. The constants remain, though: bodily dysfunction, emotional trauma, and the very human ability to somehow ignore and even triumph over it all.
The Theory of Everything plays out like the autobiography Professor Hawking will probably never write. (That’s not intended as a cruel joke, in any way, shape or form. I simply just don’t envision this man ever writing one.) And by rights, it should. While camera angles hew intimately to Hawking’s views of the world, it’s his first wife whose work has most directly inspired this particular Oscar-hopeful. Adapted from her memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,’ the film logically detours away from the scientific to focus on the romantic aspects of a life less ordinary.
Leaning on mush and sentimentality does not crush Marsh’s project, luckily enough. After all, he has been afforded a pair of breathtaking performances in the form of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The pair of young performers will seem inseparable after this. In the last several weeks, a certain someone has been knocking on this blog’s door with more questions about whom he should consider grooming next for the big stage in the Dolby Theatre. Now it would seem to be the young and freckled Londoner’s turn to be called upon. What he accomplishes in Theory is nothing short of revelatory in practice.
Twisted, pained expressions dominate Redmayne’s facial features for the film’s later stages, a development made all the more heartbreaking when given his cheerful, exquisitely nerdy countenance early on. It’s one aspect of the film that absolutely demanded perfection regardless of the surrounding material or narrative flow. Redmayne understood this and courageously ran with what will down the road be described as one of his career’s most challenging and daring decisions.
This is also Felicity Jones’ finest hour. She is a force to be reckoned with alongside the towering Redmayne, channeling her inner Jennifer Connelly appropriately. As Jane Wilde, Jones exudes strength and bravery in a situation that would surely demolish both in any ordinary mortal. There is nothing theoretical about the performances here. The film radiates sincerity and the rapport between Jones and Redmayne single-handedly elevates a somewhat pedestrian narrative. That much is most certainly clear.
What’s less clear is how much Marsh actually appreciates Hawking himself. Regrettably The Theory of Everything ends terribly. The final scenes threaten to drown out any sense of originality on the subject, as the narrative merges with the collective populace’s impressions of the guy: he’s no doubt an inspiration. But we know this already. That’s why there’s now several movies made about him. These last shots may resonate, but they resonate for the wrong reasons. It becomes evident in Theory‘s awkwardly sweeping yet rushed conclusion (why do these stories always end in big auditoriums or conference halls?) Marsh doesn’t want to put too fine a point on the harsh reality of Stephen’s triumph. He doesn’t want to betray the public perception of the iconic wheelchair-bound professor.
That’s why he saves one of the film’s most inspiring lines for the very last moment. Too bad I can’t say the same for this review.
Recommendation: Arguably laden with cheese and sentiment, The Theory of Everything features a lot of heartbreak and cold science (of at least the medical variety) to help try to balance the equation. Two incredible performances help stabilize it a little more, though ultimately this is a movie that belongs on the Hallmark channel more than anywhere else. This is a light year away from being a bad film, but it’s just as far from being original or truly moving.
Running Time: 123 mins.
Quoted: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”
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