Every year, there’s a certain film guaranteed to come out in the fall: the performance-driven biopic/period piece. The Theory of Everything, which is based on the life of the theoretical physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, could be shrugged off as another one of those. But it shouldn’t. At the heart of the film are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who offer two of the most transcendent performances of the year.
Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking is uncanny. On the surface the actor captures the physicality of Hawking so impeccably some shots will remind the viewer of images of the real man (now 72 years old). As ALS gradually diminishes Stephen’s ability to control his muscles, Redmayne contorts into postures — face, lips, brow and all — vividly bringing Hawking’s familiar nuances to life. But it’s a gradual transformation that unfolds dynamically throughout much of the film. The story opens with his years in graduate school at Cambridge, where we first see him entrenched in an exuberant, playful bicycling race with a classmate. But he also has a klutzy side and bad penmanship. Then his clumsiness gradually becomes something else. His ankles buckle, his knees wobble and his hands become stiff. There are also changes in his speech, and just when you think Redmayne might run out of a range in Stephen’s debilitating condition, the actor goes deeper.
The challenge is to act through this and express a man who seems generally undeterred to crack “the theory of everything” while growing as an intellectual. Though Stephen’s slow plunge into ALS is portrayed as difficult and challenging, it’s also accepted as an inevitable, and the fact that the disease does not diminish Stephen’s brain power means he can maintain a certain steadfastness in his intellectual quest. There is a moment where he is trapped under a sweater he cannot fully pull over his head, but staring through the fibers into a fireplace leads him to a moment of eureka. When Jane finally comes over to help, he transmits a contained moment of transcendence. The disease does not really trap him, and that the sense is transmitted with delicacy under such physical constraints speaks to Redmayne’s careful approach to this character.
Though physically demanding, there is a balance of empathy and cockiness that also informs the role. It is essential that the filmmakers bring something else to this man so he does not appear like a caricature, and part of that lies in the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones. Their courtship is charming in how they cannot seem to resist one another, and it evolves through subtle glances glued together by intellectual exchanges between two people connecting with their minds, above all. Their eyes are always on each other with a coy, sweet curiosity and interest in what the other might say next. As the years pass, Jones never modulates Jane’s gaze, even when she might be angry or impatient with Stephen.
Jones is wonderful to watch throughout the movie. She always seems connected, even when she becomes frustrated with her lover. The film is based on her perspective, after all, but it never feels like Jane is a victim. She still comes across as strong and loving, even when things grow complicated over the years, especially when other adults enter their lives.
The relationship could have easily slipped over the edge into unintended pathos, but the performances are so stellar and sincere while avoiding saccharine overdose that the characters feel easy to admire and sympathize with. Working from a script by Anthony McCarten who adapted Jane Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh shows wondrous growth as a feature director. Though his first feature, Shadow Dancer (2012), had its moments of tension, the twisting story sometimes overwhelmed the heart of the film. The gloomy setting of 1990s-era Belfast limited his palette to a drab, cold quality that kept the audience at a distance. But this time, Marsh works with such a vibrant range of color and uses so much light, it virtually enhances the pacing of the film.
Marsh is also a man who understands the profound and varied shades of complexity in human relationships. It was there in his documentaries Man On Wire (2008) and Project Nim (2011). The latter was about the various figures who entered a chimpanzee’s life, during an experiment to raise the animal as a human. The former was a biography of the first wire-walker to walk between the Twin Towers, a man who experienced life more vividly when it he put in danger, and those who loved him suffered quite profoundly for it. Within these documentaries Marsh showed a deep compassion to the complex relationships between people, purpose and love, and it comes across in The Theory of Everything.
Ultimately, it’s the complexity of the relationship and the heart of the two lead performers that make this film worthwhile. It’s captured in the smallest moments sandwiched between montages that mark life events like a wedding and the births of children, and it has no shame going places that includes sexuality and the intrusion of other people into their lives. Marsh shows keen interest in the intimate details that can shake up a couple. Fine, there’s the schmaltzy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson featuring overwrought swooning strings and bright, tinkling piano that effectively if a bit too sweetly enhances the film’s emotional tone. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme mostly uses shallow focus to highlight the acting by the two leads and enhance the bright lights in the backgrounds. But everything about the film is overshadowed by Redmayne and Jones. If you want to catch what’s sure to be a highlight of the acting offered this year in cinema, do not miss The Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything runs 123 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some language and sexual references). In South Florida the film began screening in limited release at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (see screening details for the latter here) as well the multiplexes at AMC Sunset Place, AMC Aventura, The Gateway 4, Regal South Beach and the Cinemark Palace. It opens wide everywhere else the following week, beginning Wednesday, Nov. 26, as well as at another indie cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach (see screening details for the latter here). Focus Features invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.