Dec 1, 2014

The Theory Of Everything

Well, my theory of everything is that most biopics feel like one continuum of time and space. It's hard to tell them apart, these tales of human ingenuity and survival against all odds. They are decorous, and lovingly crafted, splendidly acted, excellent candidates for awards, but they all feel like they come from the same singularity, if you get my drift.
Biographies, the written kind, seem to have a little more inclination to explore the more complex humanity of their subjects (when they're not puff pieces). But biopics tend to be the filmic equivalent of a puff piece. Apparently, in movies our cultural heroes need to be wholesome and aspirational, and utterly admirable. Because who wants to deal with the fact that someone who overcame the most incredible obstacles also had a shady side to them? We much prefer rousing edification.
So having seen two biopics about British mathematical geniuses back to back, I find it a little hard to tell them apart. Of course Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are very different. One was treated like a pariah and the other one like a rock star, but the texture of the movies is very similar. They are feel good movies about amazing heroes.
The Theory Of Everything, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), however, has an edge because Marsh has a more intimate, probing sensibility.  His film concerns the life of young Stephen Hawking, promising genius, as he discovers almost all at once that time may have a beginning, that he has Lou Gehrig's Disease and as he meets his first wife, Jane, upon whose memoirs the movie is based.
Nobody understands how Hawking has been able to survive and thrive through a diagnosis that gave him two years to live over fifty years ago. The movie is not overtly saying that it is because of the love and ministrations of his wife, but it does have her make a compelling case to him not to give up. And then it shows us what that meant.
Eddie Redmayne, one of the most adorable beings that ever walked the Earth, is probably going to win an Oscar for his incredible work as Stephen Hawking (if the inclination for the infirm in the acting category prevails). He is charming and full of vim even when the illness has gnarled his limbs and his speech. He doesn't force the genius. His intentions come through clearly from within, although I was left wanting more of him somehow. Was he ever angry, petulant, ungrateful, afraid?
Felicity Jones is equally amazing as his fierce wife, who decides to stick with him through thick and thin with determination and focus. You see her change from a timid young girl to a woman who is taking charge and whose care of her husband takes a toll. Together, they have chemistry. There should be a joint award for that; it almost never happens.
For those who want a closer look at Hawking's influential contributions to our understanding of the universe I recommend Errol Morris' entertaining documentary A Brief History of Time, starring Hawking himself, in an adaptation of his book, which you could also read. In this movie, we get excited at Hawking's ideas by proxy (If David Thewlis gets excited, so do I), and I don't blame Marsh for not going more into them - this is not an astrophysics class.
The Theory Of Everything is a look at the private life of a handicapped genius, and it is mostly well calibrated, moving, beautifully shot and not overly schmaltzy, although it does succumb several times to ghastly cliches, the worst of which is a scene at the end of an audience applauding Hawking. As if he needs the applause and as if we need it to confirm he is worth cheering for. These kinds of cheesy scenes (I counted several) underestimate the audience and undermine the lovely work Marsh does with the characters and their shifts of feeling: extraordinary people dealing with the extraordinary day in and day out.

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