Monday, December 1, 2014

The Science of Love: Tastefully made "Theory of Everything" elevated by two poignant performances

The Theory of Everything (2014)
123 min., rated PG-13.

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen," "The Theory of Everything" is more of a soulful, human love story than a comprehensive biopic (that already exists in the 2004 TV movie, "Hawking," starring Benedict Cumberbatch). Too glossy and tasteful by a half but also handsomely mounted and rightfully poignant, the film is fine when it should have and could have made the earth shake from the inherently dramatic power of watching one's personal struggle unfold. Expectations should be adjustedbut not too much, considering no one can rewrite what has already been written for the screenas the film is more interested in detailing the relationship between theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, before and after his crippling illness takes hold. With that being the case, the two lead performances are equally impressive.

In Cambridge, England, circa 1963, able-bodied 21-year-old Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) earned a reputation as a bright, ambitious student studying to be a physicist. It's around that time that he met fellow student Jane (Felicity Jones) and asked her to the May ball, where they initially only observed the dancing. Not long after that, Hawking was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease, aka Lou Gehrig's disease, leaving his paralyzed body to deteriorate and affect his ability to speak, walk, breathe, and swallow. Only his brain would be unaffected, as he would go on to prove his theories of time and the beginning of the universe. Of course, his heart would remain the same, too, as he and Jane soon married. Devoted to the challenges of being both a wife and caretaker for 25 years, Jane was determined to make their life together work, what with taking care of their three children and her husband, but life would continue to throw hurdles their way. The doctors said he would only have two years to live, but Stephen is still alive today at age 72.

Eddie Redmayne (2012's "Les Misérables") and Felicity Jones (2011's "Like Crazy") are tasked with the daunting accountability to play real people, who are still living today, and reflect the honesty of their story. And, they pull it off beautifully. In an emotionally and physically skilled performance with a complete body transformation and little subtleties, Redmayne is simply remarkable, particularly once Hawking's condition worsens. While his work is certainly in the Daniel Day-Lewis school of "My Left Foot" acting, it never once feels mannered, self-conscious, or mawkish. He never seems to be doing merely an impression by embodying Hawking's wit and knowledge and, thus, makes one forget he or she is watching a performance and not just the real genius in a time machine. Jones is a wonderful actress, and her lovely turn as Jane Hawking is not to be forgotten next to Redmayne. With grace, strength, and nuance, she makes a saintly character more complex and heartbreaking.

Director James Marsh (2009's Oscar-winning documentary "Man on a Wire" and 2012's "Shadow Dancer") and screenwriter Anthony McCarten avoid being hagiographical and bring an even-handed point-to-view, even with the source material being written by the real Jane Hawking. Fortunately, one needn't know anything about quantum physics to feel the human core of the story, as we stand by Jane standing by her husband's side, despite her affair with her church choirmaster (Charlie Cox) that was accepted by Stephen and then, by a double standard, his own with his nurse (Maxine Peake). And yet, for a film about a relationship, their extramarital relationships are almost too discreetly handled with little pain on either end. For a "prestige picture," "The Theory of Everything" isn't much more than a conventional biopic that captures the essence of Hawking. Only scratching the surface of a disease-of-the-week-movie plot progression, it is still certainly inspiring and ravishingly well-made, aided by Benoît Delhomme's lucid, radiant cinematography and Steven Noble's ace costume design. Far and away, one will take away its two stirringly excellent acting notices as this film's "everything."


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