Friday, December 19, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014) – Review

Review: The Theory of Everything is an enchanting and inspiring love story and character drama.

The film is about theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane Wilde. The couple met at Cambridge, shortly before Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuro disease. They decided to get married, despite the uphill battle their relationship faced, with Hawking getting worse and losing more of his normal bodily function. They each achieved PhDs in their fields, but the film focuses more on Hawking’s work and Wilde’s struggle to keep herself together while having to dedicate herself to taking care of Hawking.

The Theory of Everything works on two narrative levels. On one hand, it is a very touching love story about two people who take the bad with the good to make a life together – and eventually part as friends. On the other hand, it is a character drama focusing on how each other them cope with the circumstances they face. For Hawking, he must face a life filled with moments of loss, as little by little, he will lose parts of himself (the ability to walk, speak and so on). For Wilde, she must face a life in which she becomes less of a wife and more of a caretaker, sacrificing in many ways her own life for his.

Director James Marsh does a good job with both of these narrative devices, structuring the film to take advantage of each. As a romantic drama, Marsh plays with the big moments in their relationship, focusing on their courtship. When Hawking was diagnosed (in the mid-1960s), he was given two years to live. Wilde seems to have been a big reason for him to not give up and keep going, even encouraging him to pursue his work and a full life. She is his strength. Marsh does a great job conveying that while their relationship is not perfect (but really, whose is) it is their deep friendship, beyond romantic love, that kept them together, despite the great obstacles they faced. Their love and friendship saved Hawking (or so the film might suggest).

On a character level, Marsh devotes a lot to developing these two characters, allowing the audience to see things from their perspectives, to feel what they feel. Hawking just wants to be normal (something that is very relatable), while Wilde gets worn down and just needs a life of her own. As Hawking’s condition worsens, raising the family and taking care of him fall solely on her. Plus, she does not have help of any kind for many years (professional or otherwise). Marrying Hawking she knew she is making a sacrifice and she goes into fully aware of what she is taking on, but time can and will wear down any resolve.

What I like about the film is that Marsh does not focus only on Hawking and his accomplishments, persevering in spite all the challenges he faced (and faces). It would have been easy for the film to take this narrative perspective. Hawking is, after all, the known entity. Instead, Marsh devotes just as much time to Wilde. Her emotional struggles and triumphs are given just as much dramatic weight. One might say watching this film that Hawking achieved what he has because Wilde was there to support him. Without her, he might not have done the things he has. It is a narrative theme that is not often explored in cinema – the importance of those behind the more famous people who achieve great things, especially when it comes to homemakers.

The Theory of Everything is a beautiful film because the audience is right there with the characters, feeling what they feeling, wanting what they want, and rooting for their success. Marsh structures the film to play to its dramatic strengths, which is emotionally manipulative even boarding on melodramatic at times, but in service of the narrative. The film is inspiring and charming.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Marsh is a very good director of documentaries, most notably Man on Wire (which is brilliant) and Project Nim. With his fictional feature films, he has not had as much success. The best of which prior to The Theory of Everything is probably his directed chapter of the Red Riding Trilogy (he directed Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980). With The Theory of Everything, he combines his talent for telling true-life stories and garnering strong performances. It is his best feature film to date.

Aesthetically, The Theory of Everything has a lot going on. Composer Johann Johannsson’s score is wonderful. It plays beautifully with the love story elements as well as the inspiring moments of the narrative. It is uplifting. Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography is excellent as well. Here, Delhomme and Marsh maneuver the look of the film to fit the emotions at play in the moment. Sometimes the film is overblown with light, everything appearing radiant, and in other moments the lighting is rather dreary and dark – echoing the highs and lows of Hawking and Wilde’s relationship and personal struggles. John Paul Kelly’s production design grounds the film in a realistic feeling world, in some ways counter balancing the extremes of the photography. Kelly does a great job signaling the passage of time in the changing of décor, costumes and hairstyles.

The cast in the film is superb. Adam Godley, Christian McKay, Simon McBurney, and Emily Watson are all very good in small supporting roles. David Thewlis is also very good in the smaller supporting role, playing Dennis Sciama. Thewlis often at his very best in a mentor-like role (see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and to some extent Kingdom of Heaven – or conversely, as a complete bastard in Naked). Charlie Cox plays family friend to the Hawkings, Jonathan Jones. Cox uses his naturally friendly face to portray the man as being incredibly nice and understanding, and in many ways just what they needed. It is one of Cox’s best performances. Felicity Jones is fantastic as Jane Wilde. She has a lot of emotion to get through in the film, exhibiting the struggles that Jane faced and her strength. Jane (as a character) is in the difficult position of having to eventually leave Hawking but still remain likable (which is true to life, but could be somewhat hard to get across to an audience). Jones is excellent, as she woos the audience, expresses her character’s pain and needs, but also her warmth and fight. Jones is completely likable, throughout. Eddie Redmayne is incredible as Stephen Hawking, giving an extraordinarily physical performance (unmatched by anything else I have seen this year so far). Redmayne perfectly captures Hawking’s mischievous wit, compassion, ambition, and his physical tendencies. It is remarkable piece of acting.

Summary & score: The Theory of Everything could have been overly sappy, far too rigid a biopic or unfair to the people it portrays. In most cases, it would have been these things in lesser hands. Yet, as it is, the film presents full characters and even more important fully realized and powerful emotions, portrayed through excellent performances. 8/10

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