Monday, November 10, 2014

The Theory of Everything

In a just world, Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” would effectively end the Best Actor Oscar race.

His is not an impersonation of Hawking but a deeply felt embodiment of the brilliant British physicist and ultimate proof of the power of acting to overcome constraints and confinements to bring us into the interior life of a fellow human being. Redmayne is called upon to convey Hawking’s deepest thoughts with, at times, no more than a glance, a half-smile, the mischievous twinkle in his eye. No aspect of his work in “Les Misérables” or “My Week with Marilyn” prepared me for this tour de force.

“The Theory of Everything,” though, is less a biography than a portrait of the marriage, long but now long over, between Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones), who meet as students at Cambridge and fall in love a short time before Stephen begins to show symptoms of the motor-neuron disease that would eventually confine him to a wheelchair and require the use of an artificial voice. Director James Marsh, the Oscar-winning documentarian of 2008’s staggering “Man on Wire” as well as 2011’s “Project Nim,” doesn’t shy away from a brutally honest depiction of Hawking’s physical deterioration, but carefully selects images (as of a doctor marking with an “X” the incision point for his tracheotomy) that make the point without belaboring it. Nobody involved with this film would settle for a disease-of-the-week movie or a picture made to score its star a nomination for playing disabled.

As Jane, Jones’ performance is equally integral to the film’s success, and for her too this is a breakout. Her Jane Hawking is a smart, willful woman who consciously chooses, early in their relationship, to gut it out with Stephen come what may. Thus falls to her a great deal of the heavy lifting: attending to his basic functions, helping him get about, representing and advocating for him, developing a working understanding of his science, all while, oh by the way, raising their three children. Jones shows us both the strain on Jane and her fortitude and perseverance, acting primarily out of love but with a keen awareness of her vital role in bringing Stephen’s gift to the world. 

Jane’s mum Beryl (an effective Emily Watson), sensing her daughter’s weariness, proposes a remedy: singing in her church choir. Jones then delivers one of the film’s best lines: “That may be the most English thing I’ve ever heard.” Nonetheless, Jane does volunteer, and the choir director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), tells her her mezzo-soprano voice fills a void in their lineup. Jonathan is widowed, and soon Jane invites him to dinners and weekends at their home. They share a mutual attraction, but do not act on it for now. Meanwhile, Stephen has taken to Elaine (Maxine Peake), the comely and sweet-natured but demanding nurse who teaches him to communicate with a colored letter board (before the arrival of the voice synthesizer). Separate scenes in which each spouse expresses to the other – without words, only with the eyes – understanding of their respective affinities and permission to pursue them without being guilty of emotional infidelity are among the most finely rendered in my movie memory.

Marsh has made a film, luminously shot by Benoît Delhomme, that is exquisite to look at but even more beautifully observed. I cried at least as many tears of laughter at the Hawkings’ indefatigable humor as of sadness at the cruel ravages of Stephen’s disease. I wish that screenwriter Anthony McCarten had more fully developed the children, so large a part of both parents’ lives and an especial source of joy to Stephen. But that’s a minor quibble in a nearly flawless film of pitch-perfect affectional acuity and supreme sensitivity.

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