The Theory of Everything is likely to be the “adult, intelligent, emotional” film of the season, at least until Unbroken opens on Christmas. It’s well produced, very well acted, and brushes up against the idea of great intelligence while not actually challenging the viewer to attempt to understand exactly what or how the great theorist Stephen Hawking thinks.
The focus is not on Hawking’s theories, or his brain, or even his career. It’s the story of his relationship with his first wife, Jane (it’s based on her book). It could have focused more on his work and his processes, and that might well have resulted in a sharper, stronger film. But for better or for worse, it’s not. (Spoiler alert] It’s the story of a romance interrupted and ultimately destroyed by ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”). It’s also My Left Foot combined with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly combined with Iris combined with A Beautiful Mind.
The survival of a relationship against such obstacles is worthy material, and while the film is a bit soft in its presentation, it finally settles into presenting something of the challenge of the mounting pressures that come with a partner who is fading physically and then, romantically. Some have argued for more advanced theory from a film on such a great theoretician, and the film does ask us to take it on faith that this man is brilliant and that his theories were earth-shaking. But it’s careful to stay focused on the romance and the debilitating disease that eventually failed to kill Hawking but did manage to be lethal to the relationship.
What everyone is talking about, of course, is Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. And yes, he is extraordinary on several levels. Redmayne played the sweet and sensitive young film go-fer in My Week with Marilyn and a sweet and sensitive revolutionary in Les Misérables. But he puts all that sweetness and sensitivity aside here and plays a completely different character. Thinking he would bring Hawking into his gentle persona, I was genuinely surprised to see a whole different person presented: one that was always the smartest person in the room (and knew it), was youthfully stubborn in his brilliance, and was at different times charming and heartless. Redmayne’s Hawking bore no resemblance to his two most famous previous characters, and this is perhaps as great a surprise as his technical prowess in the role.
Filming out of sequence, Redmayne had to portray Hawking’s deterioration step by sometimes small step based on his own charting of Hawking’s changes and losses. He apparently worked with a dancer to move and isolate his various leg muscles to present the loss of motor skills, and he contorted his face so often that it temporarily changed his facial muscles. Yet the performance is never a display of technique or a series of “moments” marking his decline, though those moments are shown. Redmayne keeps the character front and center at all times, which is hard enough for an actor without having so many possibly distracting changes to show. Like Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, this is a breathtakingly physical and technical performance that keeps the technique buried under character.
Equally as strong but completely different is Felicity Jones as Jane. Since this is based on Jane’s memoirs, the film stands or falls on her being as strong a presence as Stephen himself. She is. Jones is exquisite, equal parts strong, fighting to be strong, and barely holding things together. This is a film that leans heavily on its actors to carry the various plot points and shifts, and most of them fall on Jones’ shoulders. Without heavy dramatics, she shows the love she has for this strange and talented man, her deep resolve to make things work, and the increasing strain her character is under.
In lesser hands, these moments could have been overdone. Here they are clear but relatively restrained. She also handles the aging well. We sometimes watch externals like hairstyles, makeup and customs to signal to us the passing of time. These are all here, but they are accompanied by accomplished acting that shows us the body language, energy and speech patterns of the young Jane, the adult Jane, and even the older adult Jane. Jones’ slight shifts are as accomplished as Redmayne’s have to be, just much more subtle.
After these two performances, possibly the most intriguing aspect of the film is its cinematography by Benoît Delhomme (Lawless and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). He (and possibly director James Marsh) often keeps Hawking isolated in the frame or via tight focusing that reminds us how little he can or chooses to relate to other people, and that he lives in his own high-IQ world. There are also formalistic flourishes in the use of color that could almost take a viewer out of the film. There is one dark and depressing scene, for example, that is noticeably grey-blue in tone that is followed immediately by one that that is unnaturally brownish red. All the choices make sense with what is happening plot-wise, but is surprisingly expressionistic in a film that is tracing the growth and trajectory of a true-life love story.
The film is solid if not exceptional, but will be remembered for launching Redmayne into both stardom and artistic respectability. Jones, already having “arrived” in 2011’s Like Crazy, will experience more adulation than ever, and likely more and better script offers. It’s ultimately a middle-of-the-road biopic, but the subjects and the two leads playing them are fascinating enough to validate the viewing.