Friday, November 28, 2014

Review - The Theory of Everything

"Cosmology," responds PhD candidate Stephen Hawking when asked about religion at a Cambridge mixer in 1963. "It's religion for scientific atheists."

This answer may seem like an odd way to pick up girls (especially proper Christian ones), but it strikes a chord for the young woman who's asking him – and who just so happens to be his future wife, Jane. Perhaps she too sees the beauty in his pursuit of a single universal equation that can explain all the mysteries of time and space; A 'theory of everything'.
It's not the equation, however, but the two lovers who become the subjects of The Theory of Everything, directed by successful documentary filmmaker James Marsh in his narrative feature debut. From that first cosmic spark of attraction to their gradual growing apart and everything in between (including the renowned physicist's long battle with disease and disability), the film chooses to deal more with humanistic romance than scientific philosophy, though packaged as a by-the-numbers biopic with Oscar aspirations for its stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.

Redmayne in particular delivers a remarkably controlled physical performance that articulates the degeneration of Stephen Hawking's condition in calibrated detail. At first his affliction manifests itself as miniscule twitches: He spills a cup of coffee, his writing becomes increasingly illegible, and his hands ever-so-slightly contort in abnormal positions.

The early warnings go unnoticed by Stephen and Jane, but we know what's happening to him. Marsh accordingly milks these moments for as much dramatic irony as he can, knowing well that Stephen's sudden diagnosis will come as a shock to him, but not to us.

When the doctor breaks the news that he has motor neuron disease – related to ALS of recent 'ice bucket challenge' fame – and gives him two years to live, Stephen and Jane get to living as much of life as they can in what little time they've got.
Time is so much on Stephen's mind that it becomes the topic of his PhD thesis, which postulates an exploded black hole as the beginning of time. The film ultimately sidesteps the fascinating science that became his life's work, which is something of a shame but also a necessary evil. This is, after all, as much Jane's story as it is Stephen's, adapted by Anthony McCarten from her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.

McCarten's screenplay is a bit of mixed bag. On the one hand, it's a highly sanitized account of Jane and Stephen's 25-year marriage, with what little conflict there is being mostly understated. Even as the Hawkings eventually fall for other people – she for a friend who assists in Stephen's care (Charlie Cox), and he for his nurse (Maxine Peake) – the film still treats them with almost saint-like empathy.

Yet there's an elegant simplicity to the script's forthright discussion of love and how it can change over time. In fact, it could have been a story about two entirely fictional characters falling in and out of love and would not have lost much effect, apart from Redmayne's uncanny transformation.
To compliment, rather than overshadow their emotional evolutions, Jones and Redmayne are aged across the decades with extreme subtlety. Steven Noble's specifically coloured costumes and Jan Sewell's ultrafine makeup are very effective at this, but invisibly so, meaning they may be overlooked for the awards consideration they deserve.

A more conspicuous behind-the-scenes contribution comes from of composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose delicate strings-over-piano score may be a tad too pronounced in the final sound mix, but is lovely to listen to nonetheless.

But what resonates the strongest – if you can get past its prestige Oscar-bait trappings – is what The Theory of Everything has to say about love, without being so corny as to come right out and actually say it. Love is messy and complicated, and like the theoretical 'equation for everything' can never be completely understood. But it's the pursuit of it that gives life its purpose. That may not explain all there is to know about the universe, but it explains an awful lot about human beings.

*** out of ****

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, my thoughts on the film were pretty much the same as yours. I can't call it a great film, but it's pretty good for what it is. Will be exciting to see how they do in the Oscar circuit.