US Release Date: 11-07-2014
Directed by: James Marsh
- Eddie Redmayne, as
- Stephen Hawking
- Felicity Jones, as
- Jane Hawking
- Harry Lloyd, as
- David Thewlis, as
- Dennis Sciama
- Emily Watson, as
- Beryl Wilde
- Charlie Cox, as
- Jonathan Hellyer Jones
- Simon McBurney, as
- Frank Hawking
- Maxine Peake, as
- Elaine Mason
- Christian McKay, as
- Roger Penrose
- Adam Godley as
- Senior Doctor, Cambridge Hospital
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything.
It's the middle of November and the award's season hopefuls are getting more numerous by the week. With the the release of The Theory of Everything you can add Eddie Redmayne's name to the pile. His portrayal of the physical deterioration of world famous physicist Stephen Hawking is the kind of showy performance that the Academy eats with a spoon.
While most people are familiar with the image of Stephen Hawking in his electric wheelchair with his voice synthesizer, how many of us know the story of how he got there? This movie tells that story, with a heavy emphasis on his early years as a physicist and his relationship with Jane, his first wife. Since the script was inspired by the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane, perhaps this is unsurprising. The plot places heavy emphasis on their romance and keeps the science details light. The result, especially for the first half of the story, is a moving one featuring two sensitive central performances.
The story begins at Cambridge in the 1960s when Hawking is a physicist student. His world is changed when he meets Jane Wilde, a language student. Despite her religious views and his adherence to science, the two are soon in love. Soon that love is put to the test when Stephen is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and is given just 2 years to live. Wishing to share what time they can together, they get married and start a family with their first two of three children born within their first 5 years of marriage. A third would be born nearly a decade later. Over the years their love is tested as Jane must cope with raising the children while also dealing with a husband who becomes more infirm by the year, but who cotinues to beat the odds of survival.
It is Redmayne's portrayal of Hawking that is generating the biggest buzz in the film and deservedly so. He begins as a physically and socially clumsy young student and then progresses through the various stages of ALS, physically transforming himself as the disease takes its toll. His acting is even more laudatory when you learn that since the film was shot out of order, as most films are, he was required to perform any one of the stages of the disease on any given day. Such was his dedication to the physical side of the performance that doctors are saying he may have altered his spine's alignment permanently (or at least so says the publicity department). Although the physical transformation is the most obvious, Redmayne's performance goes deeper than that and at every stage of the disease you always know what is going on inside of Hawking. Using just his eyes and a limited range of motion in his face, Redmayne is able to convey the spectrum of emotions. It's the kind of part that can put a young actor on the A-List, and Redmayne makes the most of it.
Although she's over-shadowed by her co-star's flashier performance, Felicity Jones as Jane should also garner some awards' attention. Since this is a British film, the overt display of emotion is kept to a minimum, but Jones delivers the kind of reserved, stiff-upper-lip, filled with repressed feelings performance that the British excel at.
If this story were purely a Hollywood crafted one, it might have ended less messily. But as this is a true story, the path of love doesn't run precisely smoothly. Anyone familiar with Hawking's life will know what I mean, but I won't give it away here. This doesn't really mar the film, but it does create a rather melancholy ending. But also it's an inspiring ending. When you see what this man and this couple had to go through and what they were able to accomplish anyway, it might put your own problems into some kind of perspective.
Stephen and Jane Hawking/Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
There is a scene in The Theory of Everything that is intended to put our own problems into perspective. At a dinner party, Hawking struggles to feed himself with a spoon. He looks around the table where people are feeding themselves without giving a mere thought to their hands lifting a utensil full of food to their mouths. Hawking has to put every effort he can into something that we all do without the slightest thought. Later in the film, Jane’s friend Jonathan attempts to spoon feed Stephen, who returns the good intention with an annoyed glare.
Is there not a level of irony that Stephen Hawking was given a brilliant brain but such a debilitating body? As I watched Stephen and Jane Hawkings having children and making their way through life, I wondered if we would have ever heard of Hawkings had he stayed healthy. Without being able to do anything physical all day, he had nothing to do but theorize. Had he been healthy and required to chauffer his children around, mow the lawn, tend to the garden, grocery shop and do all of the other mundane daily tasks, he may not have had the time to develop into the most celebrated intellect since Einstein.
Eddie Redmayne cannot be accused of giving anything less than his all to this part. His physical contorting makes us pity Hawkings but it is the subtle moments that truly sell his outstanding performance. As Scott noted, Redmayne often has only his eyes and limited motion in his face yet you are never in doubt of what emotion Redmayne is conveying.
As The Theory of Everything is a true story, and I knew how it played out, I never became too invested in the proceedings. What kept me glued to the screen was Redmayne. I was never less than mesmerized by his every movement and line of dialogue that he struggled to ennunciate as a paraplegic. Bravo Eddie Redmayne!
Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
Watching the physical deterioration of Stephen Hawking certainly puts any able-bodied person's problems in perspective. We cannot help but pity him. What we don't get from the movie though is the sense of what it's like to be Stephen Hawking. Eric mentioned The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in his comment for this movie and I too was reminded of it. In that far superior picture you really got that claustrophobic, locked-inside-yourself, feeling. In The Theory of Everything I was always on the outside looking in at a famous scientist with a debilitating disease.
I was a bit surprised at the heavy focus on Hawking's romantic life. I applaud the fact that he never let his disability stop him from leading a full life as a husband and a father. To be honest though I'm glad they didn't go the route of The Sessions (another movie I was reminded of) with full on sex scenes. But, as Scott wrote, the emphasis on his personal life comes at the expense of his work life. We learn very little about just exactly why he's such a well-known and highly respected figure in the world of science. The movie almost gives the impression that he's mostly known for his resourceful and dogged ability to adapt to the increasingly limited motor function caused by his disease. But isn't that really the case? In all likelihood a healthy Stephen Hawking wouldn't be anywhere near as famous as he is. Let's be honest, to the average person he's that really smart guy in the wheelchair with the computer voice.
One weird aspect to the movie was the fact that the time period never really seemed to change. I know it started in the early 1960s and the main story ended sometime in the late 1980s but neither Hawking nor his wife Jane are shown to age at all. Did anyone else notice this? Perhaps it was an intentional homage to the fact that Hawking spent so much of his life working on the theory of time itself?
I'm going to go against the grain here and say that I wasn't all that impressed with Eddie Redmayne's acting and, what's more, I see absolutely no reason why Felicity Jones should have been nominated for Best Actress (she's fine but not exemplary). Playing Stephen Hawking was physically demanding, true enough, but it smacks of being gimmicky to me. And I disagree that he conveys a wide range of emotion with just his face (Redmayne is no Norma Desmond). If anything he's a blank slate for the viewer to project their own feelings on. Scott is correct that the Academy eats up this type of role with a spoon and Redmayne will probably win. Still, I would much prefer to see Michael Keaton giving an acceptance speech come Oscar night.
Photos © Copyright Focus Features (2014)