With both films receiving wide theatrical release nearly simultaneously, it’s difficult to write about James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything without doing a “compare and contrast” with another serious film about a quirky British mathematical and scientific prodigy who experienced major personal challenges: Alan Turing, in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. Some may recall that I already gave that one an extremely enthusiastic review (www.ulsterpub.wpengine.com/2014/10/25/benedict-cumberbatch-brilliantly-recreates-codebreaker-alan-turing-in-the-imitation-game) back in October, when it played at the Woodstock Film Festival.
So maybe it’s a little unfair not to weigh The Theory of Everything in a vacuum; but if anybody asked which was the better movie, I would still have to say, without hesitation, The Imitation Game. But I would be equally quick to urge said questioner to make sure to see The Theory of Everything as well, purely on the strength of Eddie Redmayne’s uncannily real portrayal of the physicist. If I were personally handing out the Best Actor Oscar I’d still lean toward Benedict Cumberbatch’s career-defining performance as Turing; but the sheer physical demands that Redmayne addressed in embodying Hawking’s deterioration as his motor neurone disease progressed make this role a tour-de-force comparable to playing the lead in The Elephant Man or My Left Foot.
Redmayne captures not only the heartbreaking struggle of a man whose mind is celebrated as among the most brilliant on the planet while his body is collapsing muscle by muscle, but also the scientist’s sly sense of humor and ebullient playfulness. With his awkward carriage and his huge hornrim glasses perpetually awry, Hawking may have looked the part of the science geek while pursuing his doctorate at Cambridge; but as rendered in this film, he was no shy, affect-impaired, socially tone-deaf misfit like Turing. When he first locks eyes with wife-to-be Jane Wilde at a party, he moves right in for the kill and charms her with science chat. There seems to be no doubt in his mind that brains are sexy, and that sense of solid self-confidence helps explain how he managed to survive into his 70s – and to become an international superstar cosmologist – after being given two years to live when first diagnosed in his early 20s.
Another crucial piece of what helped Hawking transcend a life sentence of increasing physical dependence was, of course, his 25-year relationship with devoted first wife Jane. And here, once outside the magic circle of Redmayne’s total commitment to the part, is where we begin to see The Theory of Everything fall short of potential greatness. Felicity Jones does her best with an underwritten role and has some fine moments; but it does seem odd, considering that the screenplay was based on Wilde’s autobiography Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, that we don’t seem to approach the couple’s struggles from her point of view. Her character and motivations seem much more opaque than her husband’s; it takes an improbably long time before Jane gets a scene in which she betrays the strain that she’s under as Stephen becomes wheelchair-bound and needs to be spoon-fed.
The supporting cast of actors can’t be faulted, either, though most of them don’t get enough screentime to make an indelible impression. The great Emily Watson is largely wasted in a tiny role as Jane’s mother, Simon McBurney nearly as much so as Stephen’s father. David Thewlis gets a little more to chew on as Dennis Sciama, young Stephen’s faculty mentor, as do Harry Lloyd as his feckless roommate at Cambridge and Maxine Peake as Elaine, the flirtatious physical therapist who eventually becomes the second Mrs. Hawking. Charlie Cox is almost too winsome as Jonathan, the widowed choir director who becomes Jane’s aide and confidante, and eventually her second husband.
No, it’s screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Marsh who must bear most of the blame for the fact that this is generally a much weaker work of cinema than The Imitation Game. The dialogue is lackluster, the narrative predictable, conventional and often bordering on sentimental, with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s swoopy, soupy score punching up its soppier, more emotionally manipulative moments. Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography draws too much attention to itself, and not in a gee-whiz Terrence Malick sort of way; it’s a gimmicky patchwork of dark, claustrophobic labs and classrooms, sundrenched gardens and grainy home-movie effects that just don’t hang together aesthetically.
All that being said, The Theory of Everything is a movie that deserves to be seen. A role like Stephen Hawking, taking him from physically fit and racing bicycles in the first scene to crippled, contorted and voiceless by the end, doesn’t come along very often – nor does an actor who can step up to the challenge with such brio. Here, without question, Eddie Redmayne joins the distinguished ranks of Britain’s first-rate thespians; it’s a performance that should not be missed.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.