Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Strong performances are a fact in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a film that at first blush appears to be a biopic of the brilliant Dr. Stephen Hawking, but soon reveals itself as being more of an examination of the relationship between Hawking and his first wife, Jane. Rather than centering on the scientific breakthroughs that Dr. Hawking was responsible for, this is much more of a story about how Hawking's deteorating physical mobility altered the relationship between he and his wife, making Jane into as much, if not more, of a caregiver than a lover.

The film spans some 25 years of Hawking's life, starting with his pre-disease life as a student at Cambridge. It's there that he meets Jane, and the somewhat awkward Hawking manages to charm her with his wit. Before the relationship can get two serious, Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that will eventually rob him of his own mobility and even the ability to speak. His doctor gives him two years to live, which shatters Hawking so much that he pushes Jane away out of a desire to spare her.

The strong-willed Jane won't hear of it, and is determined to be by his side as long as he lives. While Hawking deteriorates, he and Jane marry and have two children. Hawking, who had already been recognized as brilliant by his instructors, continues his work. He proves that the universe had been birthed from a singularity, an astounding breakthrough. The script works to make Hawking's theories as accessible as possible to the layperson, and in one sly bit of writing, calls upon Jane to essentially translate Stephen's work for the audience. That scene is an exercise in both explaining rather abstract concepts to a general audience, but also in working in Jane's personality as she delivers what could have been dull exposition.

Felicity Jones imbues Jane with a great deal of strength and stubbornness, even as leaps forward to later years expose fault lines in the relationship. She and Eddie Redmayne as Hawking have strong chemistry, and I like the subtle exhaustion and sadness we start to see in Jane as she buckles under the weight of caring for Stephen herself. It's really hard to not get blown off the screen when placed opposite a performance like Redmayne's but Jones refuses to slip into the background.

Redmayne's performance is a remarkable bit of acting. One might quip that his job is easy because he just has to sit immobile in a chair for a good two-thirds of the film. To reduce the performance to that would be to show a profound misunderstanding of just how difficult it must be for Redmayne to be as immobile as he is. It's not just that Hawking can't move, it's that his body is contorted due to the specific muscles that are contorted and relaxed. Redmayne spends much of the film bending his body in awkward positions and then having to hold it as if he has no motor function at all.

That's not even adding in the challenge that this film wasn't shot in sequence. I saw the movie at a SAG screening that Redmayne and Jones attended, and during a Q&A it was revealed that some days, Redmayne found himself playing Hawking at as many as three distinct stages in his degeneration. Charting those nuances and making sure they add up to a cohesive performance is not easy. Doing all of that, and emoting while most of the actor's toolbox has been stripped away is pretty much setting the acting degree-of-difficulty about as high as possible.

A late scene in the script (kind of a big spoiler, so be warned) is one of those moments that every writer should aspire to pull off. Stephen is preparing for a trip to America. By now he's speaking via a computer voice box. We see him watching Jane pack things in the next room, and then we notice he's typed something to say, something he has held off from sending to the voicebox.

He's going to have his nurse accompany him to America, he says. The timing of how he executes that mechanical voice is wrought with subtext. He doesn't have to say it, Jane knows what this means. In so many words, he's declared that he's leaving her. And as I describe this, I realize I cannot possibly convey the depth of emotion that these two actors bring to this moment. One can only speak through a flat electronic voice and the other somehow has to generate emotion aside that inhuman affect. The words they exchange are simple, the electricity of that moment is not.

There are ways to reveal character without big speeches. Characters can reveal emotions without big showy performances and acting histrionics. The actors bring the weight to that moment through the history they've built with those characters. You might call the moment understated, but it's also a release of everything that has been building for some time. At some point, perhaps around the Oscars, we should give this scene a thorough examination, line by line. Absorb this moment, and you'll never again over-write.

This wasn't a totally flawless film for me. I felt that the movie could have been better at delineating some of the leaps forward in time. Though the movie spans 25 years, Jones and Redmayne aren't aged too aggressively in makeup for most of it.

I also felt that the script seemed to bend over backwards to keep both Jane and Stephen relatively "clean" in their post-marital affairs. Jonathan, the man who would become Jane's second husband, was long a friend of the family before the marriage ended. From the moment he's introduced, he and Jane are played as people who definitely want to hop into bed together. They have great chemistry, but in playing that up so fast and then soon having Jane deny any romantic feelings for him, it feels like the film is protesting too much.

It's understandable that Jane and Jonathan would develop a close connection while caring for Stephen, but something felt false about the way the film tries to claim they are "just friends" until it was acceptable for Jane to move on with him. The film is less charitable towards Stephen's nurse Elaine and later second wife. From the moment she shows up for a therapy session with Dr. Hawking, Elaine looks like she can't wait to jump his bones. It's almost as if she was directed to play it like a gold-digger. As I said, there's something about it that felt false and white-washed. Perhaps this is the way that Hawking and Jane prefer to remember it.

Other nitpicky notes include my surprise we get no real explanation for how Hawking has outlived his two-year prognosis by about five decades. I'm curious what scientific reasons might be responsible for this. Also, though Hawking's fame and work are a small piece of this story, it might have been useful to better explain when and how he became so famous to the world at large. There's a point relatively early in his disease where his mentor notes Stephen is world-famous. Stephen retorts that's "For black holes, not rock concerts." As this is before his book A Brief History of Time, I was left to wonder how his work made him so famous rather than just making his theories famous.

Script quibbles aside, this really is worth seeing for the incredible performances of the leads. And when the script works, it REALLY works. I don't know if I'll be motivated to revisit this any time soon, but there's at least one scene that had me hoping I could one day write something as good.

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