Saturday, November 22, 2014

Review: "The Theory of Everything" Excels in Greatness Despite Conventional Structure

Left to right: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones
This is a movie that shouldn't work. Everything about it is heavily documented and the zeitgeist-heavy presence of Stephen Hawking gives us every detail that we need. The famed scientist, played here by Eddie Redmayne, overcame a lot of obstacles, fell in love and won the hearts of scientists internationally. Still, with his Lou Gherig's Disease, there's something deeper in the character. There is something more refined and fascinating that keeps director James Marsh's The Theory of Everything from being a sentimental, disposable biopic in which nothing particularly shocking happens. True, everything down to the iconic voice box gets explored in the film. However, like the best of biopics, the struggles and stories are all surface level for a more universal subtext with something that compels. In this case, it is the balance between work and love, health and sanity, even science and religion. For a protagonist who is bound to a wheelchair for most of the two hour running time, the film manages to capture something more powerful about how we perceive our world.

The film opens on a happier, more innocent Hawking as he rides a bicycle and plays simple games with his schoolyard chums. He is a whiz scientist with enviable skill and a delightfully shy sense of humor. As he meets Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones), the "living" that Hawking is known for becomes more apparent. In between exploring a black hole theory and raising a family of three, he is thrown with the most unfortunate of life's curve balls. After striking his head on the pavement, it becomes clear that the shaking and small tics that defined his demeanor were in fact physical defects. With two years left to live, the story begins to shift from the work obsessed boy to a more complex man. Often shot through a nostalgic lens, we see Hawking's life unfold before our eyes, never once considering his problematic stature. It helps that he is charming and witty even in times of panic. However, it could also be that in trying to dissect the construction of time, he unfolds a greater story with the film's final line "Look what we created."

The film is bittersweet largely thanks to Redmayne's dedication to the little things. As early as the first few minutes, there are hints that something is wrong. He doesn't embrace the character with shakes and a total physical breakdown. Instead he gives us a tilted head, a curved lip and a limp leg that hangs off to the side as he walks. The transformation is just that. Playing out in a gradual process, there is a sense that what we're seeing is real. It is tragic as the camera becomes more focused on his perspective as he fails to climb stairs or eat basic foods without shivering. By the end, it doesn't matter that he is talking through a voice box. It is believable enough that the triumphant final moments pave the way for a heartwarming story that lacks sappiness. It may also lack a clear through-line, but the performance of Hawking is something astounding and one of the greatest physical performances of the year. Redmayne isn't all that flashy with his choices while disappearing into the role.

It also helps that behind the great, fragile man is Jane. She is a woman who sacrificed a singing career to help him through the tough times, knowing well that his fate was supposedly imminent. They made the most of their time together and while there were other romantic interests, they remained true to each other. Even if Jones isn't nearly as memorable as Redmayne, her simplicity is powerful, capturing the romance in a relationship struck by handicaps. It seems sweet because it reveals the sincerity of humanity and how love is more powerful than being repulsed by a health condition. We never see her crumble nor have a deeply problematic altercation with Hawking. What she does have is interior guilt that conveys her expressions. There is love, but there's also desire for something more. Between the two's romance, it turns the traditional nature of the biopic into something more powerful. Even if the story is predictable and the themes occasionally blatant, the Hawking couple is a thing of beauty when shot against very bright scenery.

The film itself often plays like a strange romantic dream sequence. With lens flairs and artistic portraits of everyday scenery, the world around them becomes something beautiful and mystical. It is through Hawking's gaze, as he finds the world this beautiful place. He must find out what everything means. Johan Johannson's classical score borrows heavily from Hawking's real life interest in Vagner, often allowing for an orchestra to swell over the scenes and make the joyous moments reach new peaks. It may be the most conventional element of the film, but it works so well. It even manages to occasionally work perfectly within context of the film, fading into players as they play piano or hear the piece of music on a nearby player. Much like the cinematography and Hawkings, these things embody the world, clashing together while trying to understand how it all connects. Thankfully, even when it doesn't, the pieces are too beautiful to argue with.

The Theory of Everything is a film that shouldn't work notably because it is too familiar. Everyone knows that Stephen Hawking didn't die after the two years that serves as the film's catalyst. We know his work and his many accomplishments are discussed momentarily throughout the film. However, the film is about deeper subtexts that, as the title suggests, includes everything. Life is fickle and for Hawking, it could have easily ended before his glory days. Instead, he lived on with a wonderful wife with a thankless job. Despite falling into the conventions of the genre, the film is too strong on stimulation over manipulation to make it problematic. With Redmayne proving to be a potential great that can embody roles with the best of them, there's too much to admire about this film to get hung up on what we already know. The film isn't just about Hawking or Jane or science. It is about everything and the mysteries that surrounds it.

Wow. I have heard all of the great things about Eddie Redmayne's performance leading up to the film's release, but the trailers did such a poor job of convincing me that it could be any good. It didn't take long for me to feel immediately foolish as I noticed his limped walk and slight head tilt. He was going to go for something profound. It is so great in fact that my initial fear that this would be an inferior My Left Foot was thankfully proven wrong. It may not be as showy, but it definitely deserves as much acclaim. The performance is genius in that it is a gradual transformation that takes its time but slowly shows new faults. It is a talent of an actor who clearly wants to prove something great about this man. For that, I almost certainly want to say that this year's Best Actor's race is OVER. Unless somebody can turn in something as physically demanding, just settle for second place.

I am not as hip on Felicity Jones, though she does help to carry the film into something of a warm, personal space. She has the thankless job of wife to a man who will always outshine her. She has to deal with everything about him in ways that are heartbreaking and beautiful at varying times. I consider her a strong contender in an already strong race. I also want to believe that the production side of the film will get a lot of recognition, including for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay. While the film does have occasional bouts of conventional moments, it never feels wrought with the problems. I would even consider it among those likely to get a Best Picture nomination.

In fact, this is a film that has grown on me since seeing it mere hours ago. Where I started off disliking the score as subpar Alexandre Desplat, I grew to understand its deeper meaning. Likewise, I have slowly dissected the film's deeper contexts and have found great aspects to study. Most of all, I love how much it avoids sappiness in favor of real drama that grabs you. It treats his condition seriously, but paints him as a man full of life and humor. It is intelligent in making something familiar into something greater. I just hope Redmayne wins, or there will be hell to pay.

Will Eddie Redmayne win Best Actor? Is The Theory of Everything a strong front runner for Best Picture? Is the film too much of an outlier for Oscars?

No comments:

Post a Comment