This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching two films with extraordinary performances from the leads, making each memorable and insanely watchable. But in each film, decisions were made effectively marring the overall experience, making each 'Very Good' instead of ‘Extraordinary’.
"The Theory of Everything", a new biopic about Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane, is a remarkably well-made film depicting the life of a man most people know for two things; his life in a wheelchair and his extremely popular bestseller "A Brief History of Time". But there is a lot more to this story and this film paints in some of the lesser-known details.
Picking up with Hawking (Eddie Redmayne in a career-making performance) as a student at Cambridge studying physics, we see the student frequently lost in thought, trying to figure out the many mysteries living in his mind. He doesn't seem to have any trouble with his studies, solving 9 of the 10 questions his professor (David Thewlis) deems impossible to answer, he is simply bored and would rather think about the mysteries of the universe rather than spend time with lectures and assignments. He meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and runs into her a few times, but they seem unable to commit to a relationship. They are intrigued by one another because neither is your typical college student; Stephen seems unaware of how he should be courting Jane and she is amused by his confident awkwardness. Stephen begins to notice something is wrong, he can't hold things, he trips, he seems to be losing control of his body. The doctor soon confirms that he has ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and has only a few months to live. Hawking returns to his room at school and shuts himself off from the world. But Jane is determined to get him out of the room. They are soon married. Children follow and Hawking continues his pursuit of a doctorate. Defying every prediction about his disease, his marriage, his life, the thesis becomes the basis of his bestseller and he becomes an internationally known scholar. But there are personal costs.
Directed by James Marsh (best known for the documentaries "Man on Wire" and "Project Nim") and written by Anthony McCarten, "Theory" fills in the details of Hawkings' life, giving us the background and information we don't know about the world's most famous physicist. It is told in an old-fashioned style; the movie begins at an important point in Hawking's life and this leads to a flashback at the beginning of the story - Hawking as a student at Cambridge. Working linearly forward, we watch as Hawking and Jane deal with the ravages of the disease until we get back to that important point that opened the film. This method of storytelling works well here, the story of their life is interesting enough to hold our attention. It isn't necessary to do anything radical; in fact, such a thing could detract from the story and make it less personable. As it is, "Theory" helps us become a participant in the story which makes the life of the Hawkings even more emotional and moving.
Eddie Redmayne has been around for years. I first saw him in "Elizabeth I", the mini-series featuring Helen Mirren as the Queen. Interesting note: he also appeared in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age", the sequel to "Elizabeth", both of which featured Cate Blanchett as the Queen. But his first major role was as Antony Baekeland in "Savage Grace". Perhaps because he did such a good job in the role, I found it difficult to watch the performance and had a hard time watching him in anything after that. More recently, he was in "My Week With Marilyn" and "Les Miserables". Now, with "The Theory of Everything", Redmayne proves he is an actor who can create a real and viable performance.
Bringing that ability to really become the character, which made some of his other work uncomfortable to watch, Redmayne really inhabits the body of Hawking. From the moment he appears onscreen, Redmayne seems to both be younger and somehow more frail than he actually is. This is a pretty remarkable feat for any actor, but Redmayne makes it seem effortless, which is one the reasons he is so good. The sparkle in his eye pretty much always there, shows how Hawking really viewed life, even after learning of his illness.
Because of the nature of the character, the actor doesn't have the most lines in the film. But as Hawking's illness continues to incapacitate him, Redmayne continues to bring many aspects of the scientist’s struggle with his body to life. He really shrinks in on himself, showing the deterioration due to the disease. And it is the rare performance that is all the more memorable because of the lack of words. Because of Hawking’s inability to use his voice, Redmayne conveys a lot through his eyes and his limited facial expressions.
It is really an excellent performance that you shouldn't miss.
The movie is based on a book by Hawking's first wife, Jane, played by Felicity Jones. The role is less showy but no less an important part of the story. We see all of Hawking's love, triumphs, set backs, everything through her eyes. Jones does a great job of forcing us to watch her and remember that she is an integral part of this man's life. This is difficult because so much of Hawking is a part of her life and without her, he wouldn’t be who he is. Let's face it. Before this movie, I doubt if many knew anything about Jane. When you are married to someone as universally recognized as Hawking, it is difficult to stand out. But that is also part of the story. Jane is always at Hawking's side, providing him with support and encouragement.
As Hawking's body changes and works against him, Jones does a great job of showing how much more difficult this support and encouragement becomes.
David Thewlis ("Harry Potter") plays Hawking's college mentor Dennis Sciama. The portrayal makes it easy to see what a good mentor is capable of.
The other significant role is played by Charlie Cox ("Stardust", the upcoming Netflix series “Daredevil”). Jonathan, a choir director who Jane turns to for escape, becomes a larger part of their family when he is hired to become a sort of live-in caretaker for Stephen. Jane finds herself drawn to him and this helps her to make a decision later in the story.
The significant problem with "Theory" is the conventional nature of the narrative. We have seen many biopics that begin with a significant event late in the subjects life. After a few moments designed to catch our interest, they generally move back to the beginning of the story. Later, the big event is revisited as a way to segue into the final moments. It isn't particularly inventive to tell any story in this way, but it does work to a certain degree here. Because the narrative is so 'easy', it allows us to concentrate on the fantastic performances. But easy narrative and stellar acting don't equal a great film, they add up to a very good film.
Director Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten don't exactly do a disservice to the film by taking the easy way out, but it is disappointing.
That said, Marsh does provide visuals which are extremely beautiful and help to draw us into this film, making it more interesting and moving. The scene depicting a wedding that Stephen and Jane attend early in their relationship, which has also accompanied just about every television interview I have seen with one of the two stars, is particularly beautiful and helps to illustrate many things in their relationship. Despite Hawking's overt geekiness, his explanation of the lighting effect helps to make Jane fall for him. It also shows how Hawking's mind works; despite the other elements of his life, science is a constant in his mind.
Because of the tried and true nature of the narrative, I suspect the film will do better with the Academy, and earn more Oscar nominations, than a more challenging film. The Oscars have a history of going for safer films and snubbing better, more interesting works.
Hello, "Chariots of Fire", "Shakespeare In Love" and many others. I'm talking about you.