Friday, December 5, 2014

The Theory of Everything: A beautiful mind

The Theory of Everything (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for dramatic intensity and mild suggestive material

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.14

It’s necessary, up front, to recognize that this film is adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s 1999 memoir, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (extensively updated and re-published in 2008, as Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen).

During Cambridge's annual May Dance, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) can't quite get into the
spirit of the event itself — for openers, he refuses to dance! — but his goofy charm
nonetheless makes an increasingly strong impact on Jane (Felicity Jones).
We therefore cannot be surprised by the saintly hue that Felicity Jones brings to her portrayal of Jane: devoted, compassionate and (particularly) patient beyond comprehension. To be sure, selfless caregivers certainly exist in real life: quiet heroes who rarely receive the admiration they so richly deserve. And there’s no doubt that Jane Hawking must’ve had a very hard life, during her early years with a husband succumbing to motor neuron disease (MND, which is related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

But no displays of impatience or hostility, no raging against the universe, no signs of crumbling on Jane’s part? Even if we acknowledge traditional British reserve, that’s a bit hard to swallow here.

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible ... thanks to James Marsh’s thoughtful, sensitive direction, and the incandescent performances by Jones and most particularly Eddie Redmayne. The latter looks, moves and sounds so much like Stephen Hawking, that at times it’s hard not to believe it’s actually him on the screen.

Most crucially, Redmayne captures Hawking’s goofy grin, sparkling eyes and irrepressible, Puckish sense of humor. After the MND robs the man of his limbs — and, eventually, even his ability to speak — Redmayne nonetheless continues to convey a wealth of emotion with faint head movements, raised eyebrows, a twitch of that famous smile, and his darting, ever-inquisitive eyes that miss nothing.

We’ve not seen an actor so thoroughly inhabit a physically challenged role since Mathieu Amalric’s portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, in 2007’s equally fine The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Bauby’s life changed in an instant, though, whereas Hawking — and his friends, colleagues and family — endured the heartbreak of his slow, debilitating slide into utter helplessness.

But we begin in happier times. It’s 1963, where Stephen is a cosmology student at Cambridge University: the mischievous, easily distracted member of a doctoral team being supervised by famed British physicist Dennis W. Sciama (David Thewlis, in a nicely understated performance). Stephen’s apparent disconnection from real-world requirements is a source of constant amusement to roommate and best friend Brian (Harry Lloyd), who probably has to remind his buddy to eat and sleep on a regular basis.

There’s no doubt, even now, that Stephen is brilliant; he demonstrates this with his handling of Sciama’s final assignment of “10 impossible questions”: a deliciously timed, wonderfully cinematic moment handled brilliantly by Marsh and scripter Anthony McCarten.

Elsewhere, at an after-hours mixer, Stephen is noticed from afar by Jane, brought to this party by a good friend who sizes up the room and then apologizes for wasting their time with a bunch of “scientists.” But Jane already is intrigued by Stephen’s piercing gaze and mildly disheveled charm: She’s purely smitten, plain and simple. And so is he.

This “meet cute” moment leads to a gently unfolding courtship, complete with an obligatory visit with Stephen’s parents and siblings: a lunchtime gathering supervised by his wry father (Simon McBurney) and laden with private, artsy banter that would cow most newcomers into terrified submission. But not Jane; she’s made of sterner stuff, and Jones maintains an enticing blend of pluck and quiet resolve.

It’s a marvelous tableau, this lunch, likely far too good to be true. (Indeed, evidence suggests that this sequence sprang not from Jane Hawking’s memoir, but McCarten’s imagination. No matter: It plays well.)

This first hour’s most irresistible element is the blossoming romance itself: the courtship and eventual marriage between this luminescent British rose and a gawky physicist given to observations about stars and Tide laundry detergent. Redmayne and Jones share the same affectionate chemistry that Stephen and Jane apparently experienced in real life, and there’s no denying the sweet allure of watching two young people so thoroughly in love.

All too soon, though, things turn grim. On the one hand, Marsh and McCarten don’t shy from Stephen’s growing frustration and misery, as his body gradually shuts down; Redmayne’s expressions of anguish are heartbreaking. Watching Stephen navigate the stairs (!) of their first flat is akin to receiving a physical blow, and a reminder that — however famous he would become, later in life — at this stage, Hawking was an extremely underpaid theoretical scientist.

On the other hand, the more intimate elements of this couple’s life are circumspect to the point of near absurdity. Sex clearly takes place; Stephen and Jane have three children. Granted, we don’t need the graphic realism of 2012’s The Sessions, where John Hawkes and Helen Hunt so warmly depicted the sexuality of a man trapped within an iron lung; at the same time, the metaphorically closed doors here hearken back to the polite fade-outs that substituted for lovemaking in 1940s melodramas, and that’s a bit much. Or, rather, too little.

Here, too, one gets a sense of the actual Jane Hawking’s off-camera hand on the tiller ... and yes, Marsh has acknowledged that she forbade even a hint of on-camera sexuality. The film suffers from this demand.

It becomes more important as the relationship between Stephen and Jane begins to fray. Marsh and McCarten are careful to avoid assigning blame; Jane clearly has become overwhelmed, and Jones’ quiet despair battles the stiff-upper-lip resolve she knows is expected of her. But Stephen, who sees all, understands that his condition is exacting a grim toll on the woman he loves; Redmayne’s silent gaze speaks volumes.

And, so, two other key figures enter the picture: Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), a widowed choirmaster at the local church, where Jane hopes to resume the singing that once meant so much to her; and Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), an earthy nurse and caregiver who initially becomes Stephen’s “voice” — with the help of an alphabet board — after a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, and the tracheotomy that helps save his life, take away his voice forever.

The resulting dynamic is oddly complicated, fascinating and thoroughly believable. Cox gives Jonathan a shattered, highly vulnerable reading: a man still grieving for his former soul mate (lost to leukemia), who badly needs to find a fresh purpose in life. Peake, in striking contrast, grants Elaine an authoritative snap that catches Jane (and us) off guard ... on top of which, we soon discover that Elaine shares Stephen’s earthier sensibilities.

All this angst notwithstanding, Marsh and McCarten never let their narrative slide into soggy sentimentality or turgid melodrama. Although these depictions of Stephen and Jane Hawking likely are grander and more buoyant than factual reality, we forgive the strawberry-lensed enhancement; to do otherwise would deny the finely crafted work by Redmayne and Jones.

On top of which, no less an authority than Hawking himself weighed in during a recent interview with USA Today, when he admitted that the film is “surprisingly honest,” and praised Redmayne’s performance: “At times,” Hawking said, “I almost believed he was me.”

Redmayne likely will be remembered as Marius in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, and there’s no denying that his superlative efforts here will exponentially enhance his career. Jones, in turn, has been working steadily for almost two decades, although mostly in British film and television productions; she might be recognized as Nelly, the “secret lover” who becomes Charles Dickens’ constant companion in 2013’s The Invisible Woman.

My one strong complaint is this film’s frustrating refusal to give us a more accurate sense of the passage of time. Aside from the initial acknowledgment that these events begin in 1963, we’re never told what happens when; our only clue is the aging of the Hawkings’ three children. While most of us know that Hawking’s A Brief History of Time turned him into a cerebral superstar, how many remember the book was published in 1988? This film certainly doesn’t tell us that, nor do significant world events impinge upon the drama. Marsh rather irritatingly encloses his film within a rarefied bubble, much like an academic’s equally cloistered university existence.

That caveat aside, there’s no denying this film’s gentle power: both in terms of its core love story, and the depiction and ascent of a rare scientific mind. We get a genuine sense of genius at work, in a way rarely captured in filmed drama. (Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind also caught it.) Then, too, we’re left with one of Hawking’s most famous quotes, which speaks volumes both about his own career, and the potential contained within us all: “However bad life may seem, where there is life, there is hope.”

Words to live by. A film to embrace.

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