Monday, 2 February 2015

Movie Review: The Theory Of Everything (2015)

In my now-yearly tradition of spooling through the Oscar nominees as if I gave a pea or squib about what the Academy actually thinks, this one's inclusion let loose one of the frankly uglier stereotypes surrounding the Oscars from my mind. Essentially, the story goes that the Academy is far more favourable towards films that focus on illnesses that weaken the body or the mind; anything involving a wheelchair or mental abnormalities are shoe-ins. Whether this is accurate or not, the simple fact is that these stories do connect with people; we have a capacity for sympathy, despite what the world of bro-douche-comedies may want us to think, and these films do register more with us than others. Add to that how the subject is one of mankind's most unique scientific voices and then it hits harder. Is this just simple Oscar bait? Only one way to find out: This is The Theory Of Everything.

The plot: Following Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne)’s tenure at Cambridge University as he prepares his thesis on black holes, he meets his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and the two hit it off. As Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease and his body begins to weaken, Jane stands by his side and supports him in his effort to continue his study of the universe and how it all began.

As someone who frequents the world of internet snark about films, I have heard many a joke about comparing particularly wooden performances to Microsoft Sam. So, with that brand of cynicism coursing through my thoughts, I was initially skeptical about how exactly Eddie Redmayne would portray Hawking and how he would be written as a character. Bear in mind that I have yet to see the 2004 TV movie Hawking with Benedict Cumberbatch, so I don’t have any other portrayals to go on for this. However, within record time, Redmayne puts all of those thoughts to rest. The man does wonders in the role, pulling off the balance between his inner anguish over his debilitating illness and his famous dry sense of humour. Watching this, you could easily buy that this is the same man who had a cameo in a Monty Python live show to tell Brian Cox that he was overthinking the Universe Song. In the first act, Redmayne is pretty adorkable, channeling Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor by way of Hugh Grant. Actually, that feels somewhat lampshaded here given the surprising amount of Doctor Who references found here: From a sudden namedrop during a dinner party to the frequent mentions of time travel to showing Hawking at home going “Exterminate! Exterminate!”, whether the comparison was intended or not, it was kind of glorious to see on screen for a die-hard Whovian like myself.

As Hawking’s illness debilitates his body further and further, this could have very easily turned into pantomime given the boundless supply of Hawking parodies we’ve seen in the last several years. But Redmayne, with the help of some very humanizing dialogue, gives the role the dignity and heart that is required to sell it on screen. The biggest contributor to this in the writing department is the wise decision to keep Hawking’s sense of humour intact. Hawking is well known for not taking himself too seriously in the real world and is perfectly willing to take the piss out of himself, and the script here shows that well with quite a few good jokes and funny character moments that help add to the emotional drama of the proceedings. Just as an example of this, there is an exchange between Hawking and his roommate Brian that is, essentially, a joke about how Hawking’s ‘equipment’ works and how he is able to have children. Through the performances, the conversation stays on the side of jocular without descending into nastiness of tone or subject matter.

Now, to discuss Jane Hawking and it is here that the chinks in the production’s armour start to show themselves. Not to say that Felicity Jones is bad in her role, far from it, but rather this concerns how the script was adapted from Jane’s memoirs about her life with Stephen. This film has a feel that we are seeing Stephen through Jane’s eyes, both in and out of the film’s reality, which admittedly isn’t a bad thing. Rather, the issue I take with this are the moments that focus solely on her, specifically on her and her relationships in-story. Later on in the film, we meet Jonathon (Charlie Cox) and, while we do see a relationship grow between them, it feels like the writer Anthony McCarten is holding back. There are a lot of scenes concerning her and Jonathon that don’t firmly establish anything but just come across like McCarten is treating any possibility of an affair with kid gloves. Sure, this makes some level of sense considering we are, again, watching a film slanted towards her point of view, but that purported need to not commit to the juicier details of the relationship hurt this film somewhat. Maybe it was out of a want not to gain the ire of the real-life Hawkings, but it detracts from the film nonetheless. Hell, even Stephen’s relationship with his second wife, Elaine, is treated with a lot of Vaseline lens and kind of glossed over with only the bare minimum of details included. Now, this might not seem like that big an issue since this is a film focusing on Stephen Hawking… except, at least partially, it isn’t. It is being marketed, and written now that I think about it, with emphasis on the relationship between Stephen and Jane, and without proper inclusion of the less pleasant details, I can’t help but think that this isn’t being completely honest about its subject matter.

On a minor note, or relatively minor given what I’ve just mentioned, the visuals at work here could have used some work. There is a running motif throughout the film of winding back the clock, coinciding with Hawking’s own goal of learning what happened at the beginning of time, and for the most part it’s done okay. We see a lot of spinning and swirling images which add to it, and even some of the other shots look gorgeous like when Hawking looks at his fire through a hole in his jumper. However, it feels like more could have been done with the visuals, especially considering what we see the filmmakers are capable of doing. The winding clock imagery is still good, don’t get me wrong, but much like the focus on the relationships of the characters it feels like the filmmakers are restraining themselves.

All in all, this is a drama in the same vein of Still Alice where the main performance is what anchors the film, although this time around the writing also does well at complimenting the actors to breathe humour and heart into the production to give extra punch to the rather tragic story of one of our foremost scientists. Eddie Redmayne managed to negate all mockery that is come before him and deliver a portrayal of Hawking that is amazingly accurate to the man himself. Supported by a great cast and some eye-catching visuals, this is a very good watch even if it feels like it’s holding out on us at times. It’s better than American Sniper, as I definitely connected more with the main character here, but it falls short of Still Alice, where the more dramatic moments hit harder for me personally. This is worth checking out for Redmayne’s portrayal alone, but worth sticking around for the witty writing; it may be Oscar bait but that shouldn't detract from seeing it.

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