Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake
Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"What about the brain?" That's the first question Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) asks the doctor who diagnoses him with ALS in James Marsh's biographical romance, The Theory of Everything. And as long as you know that Hawking's scientific breakthroughs and theories will be nudged aside in favor exploring his marriage and battle with this crippling disease, it's easy to respect what the film has to offer. Namely, two Oscar-worthy performances and an often uncomfortable, if necessarily detailed depiction of his physical deterioration. And that's the way this had to be since any detailed explanation of his work on film would have come across as dry or incomprehensible to even the most engaged viewers.

This isn't an adaptation of  his bestselling "A Brief History of Time," nor should it be, as anyone interested in digging further into his theories should probably just read that book or hunt down the many the documentaries covering it. The source is instead his ex-wife's memoir, "Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen," so it's unfair to criticize it for what it isn't, especially considering there will be some legitimate gripes with what it already is. And yet, it's still an effective, handsomely made film a lot of people will love for very valid reasons. Consider it a disease procedural about perseverance, with a love story as its backdrop.

We're first introduced to Hawking in 1963 as a 22-year-old doctorate student at Cambridge who's well-liked and intelligent, continually impressing his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis). It's here where the initially uncertain young man immerses himself in his studies of physics and cosmology, challenging many previously held theories about time, the origins of the universe and black holes. The script digs about as deep as that broad description, instead shifting the focus to his courtship of an intelligent, pretty liberal arts major named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), whose religious beliefs often clash with Hawking's scientific ones. But they hit it off, each intellectually impressed with the other in spite of their differences.

While studying at Cambridge, what initially seems to be Stephen's natural awkwardness soon leads to the frightening diagnosis of ALS (or Lou Gehrig's Disease), a degenerative motor neuron disease that will rob him of his muscle control, speech, and then, eventually, everything else. Given only two years to live, he and Jane marry and have children, with Hawking continuing to defy the odds, while his books and theories cement his status as one of the most brilliant and respected scientific minds of the past century.

What makes Hawking such a fascinating subject, despite the relatively straightforward approach to telling his story, is just how little we actually know about him. Aside from those familiar with his life's work, I'm willing to bet few had any idea he was married twice and had three kids. That he's probably known by most casual moviegoers as that guy in a wheelchair who speaks through a computer makes the need for a biopic long overdue. What the uninitiated won't walk away with is any clue as to why he's so revered or what he specifically accomplished. The few scenes touching on it are necessarily explained in layman's terms and some may even find themselves perplexed by those.

The movie goes out of its way not to turn into a physics lecture, as Anthony McCarten's script finds the right balance and tone in presenting the work in the context of his personal life, with BenoƮt Delhomme's cinematography aiding in creating a vivid, dreamy atmosphere. Had Marsh decided to go further with the science, he would have not only lost the audience, but probably damaged the flow of the film, which is deliberately paced as it is.

The focus is primarily on the ALS battle and it's an eye-opening look at a disease that's recently gotten a lot of attention without much knowledge or education. This at least provides that and Hawking's fight delivers the conflict, despite the heavy, but clumsily handled implication that both Stephen and Jane carried on extra-marital affairs. She with church organist and Stephen's eventual caretaker Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and he with nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). But the film goes to such great lengths to deny either cheated during their marriage that it's almost comical. It's as if the producers knew they wouldn't get Hawking's full endorsement unless they tip-toed over it, resulting in extreme vagueness.

Jane's pseudo-affair plays better, as she has to fight her emerging feelings for a kind man taking care of her husband and teaching their child, but the script's treatment of Stephen's relationship with that nurse (a late development) is flat-out strange. Perhaps unwilling to compromise Hawking's virtuous reputation, the affair is begrudgingly included, to the smallest extent possible. There's no risk of anyone confusing his personal or moral failings with Steve Jobs' anytime soon, but if the filmmakers weren't going all in and felt that uncomfortable, it probably should have been excised altogether.

While it may be a long-running joke that the quickest way to an Oscar is playing a real-life figure or someone with a debilitating disease, there's a real reason for it. It's extremely difficult. Redmayne does both, and is equally brilliant at it. Besides the subtle physical performance he has to pull off when Hawking first shows ALS symptoms, the most impressive work comes later, when confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak on his own, Redmayne maintains the spark and intelligence of that Cambridge student who first fell in love with physics and Jane. Besides the uncanny resemblance to the real man, there's very much a personality in there that's still shining through, even during Hawking's lowest health moments.

As the rock of the story, Felicity Jones embodies Jane with a strength that's startling, but not completely unexpected knowing how long she cared for her now ex-husband. But it's another thing to see it and witness how Jones presents it. Almost out of pure stubbornness and steely resolve she refuses to give up, answering a firm, certain "No" when frequently confronted with the possibility that she should. She just keeps chipping away to maintain his quality of life and add days, with Jones completely dialed in to this aspect of the character. Everyone will justifiably rave about Redmayne but the movie is as much Jones', with implication being that Hawking is alive today because of Jane. And based on what's presented here, it's difficult to argue that point.

Supposedly, Hawking has already seen and loved the film, but his most revealing comment was on its accuracy. "Broadly true," he called it. With those two words the real-life subject may have offered up a better review of the The Theory of Everything than anyone else possibly could. The whole thing does feel broadly accurate in the sense that Marsh gently brushes over the important moments of his life, touching on key events without stirring up too much controversy, and in two instances, actively avoiding it. It wouldn't be completely inaccurate to label it a "paint-by-numbers" biopic even if I detest the term, but thankfully the subject and acting highly elevate the material.

It's practically impossible not to get caught up in this, just as it's impossible for Hawking himself not to love it given his saintly depiction. That it manages to do this without coming off too saccharine or syrupy, at least until the final scenes, is more than commendable. That he miraculously exceeded doctors' projections by a good forty plus years is the ultimate irony considering his belief in science over faith. While both undoubtedly played a big role, much of it had to do with his wife's refusal to throw in the towel. That and the performances make for a lasting experience, despite the nagging feeling there's a little more to the man than what we got.

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