By Marshall shaffer
‘Tis the season when phenomenal performances occur in decently passable films, and “The Theory of Everything” has arrived to fit that bill. The movie is little more than a stage for a stunning physical transformation by Eddie Redmayne and a formidable emotional turn by Felicity Jones. Their work shines particularly brightly because the film does not anything else nearly as remarkable as them. And actually, this hardly proves bothersome.
Director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten certainly provide admirable mood and story, respectively, to bring Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life and love to the screen. They manage to pull off “The Theory of Everything” as a two-hander, giving both characters roughly proportionate screen time and development. Normally, this kind of tale makes the woman subordinate to the man, reducing her to little more than a support system for her partner. (Ahem, “The King’s Speech.”)
Granted, this was not too daunting of a task given that the source material is a book by Jane not solely about his illness and ingenuity but about their life together. McCarten wisely keeps her story a central component of the film. She is more than just the opposite that attracts him once, marries him, and then sits quietly on the sidelines as he acquires his own goals. Jane is a person with flaws and ambitions in her own right, and by allowing her struggles equal credence, “The Theory of Everything” gives her both agency and weight in the overarching narrative.
As Stephen pursues his equation to encompass relativity and quantum mechanics, Jane is putting in the labor to achieve her own theory of everything. She wants to serve as a wife and mother as well as attain her Ph.D. in Spanish medieval poetry. She seeks not only to give love but also to receive it, and the latter becomes a source of compelling tension when Steven’s condition deteriorates to critical levels. Jones shines in these later scenes, illustrating Jane’s good-hearted attempts to maintain a cheery caretaker’s facade. Behind it all, though, Jane clearly yearns for the kinds of affection which her husband can no longer provide.
Concurrently, in what will surely be this year’s masterclass in physical acting, Eddie Redmayne slowly turns Stephen Hawking from a brilliantly bookish astronomy student into the cultural icon now known throughout the world. As a motor-neuron disease gradually eats away his physical faculties, Redmayne ever so slightly adjusts the orientation and capability of his body with each passing scene. Wondering what ability will disappear next almost becomes an odd source of fascination that propels “The Theory of Everything” forward.
Hawking’s corporal decomposition would mean very little, however, if it were not accompanied by a deeply humane component. Redmayne is quite the on-screen charmer, and that side of him never disappears for a second in “The Theory of Everything.” Though his body may fail him, Hawking’s brain, unaffected by the muscular affliction, definitely does not. He can still craft everything from a witty quip to a postulation as to how he might disprove the “celestial dictator” of God. Hawking’s mind is not just beautiful – it is of Teflon strength.
“The Theory of Everything” also offers a SparkNotes guide to the work of Stephen Hawking, which comes as somewhat of a surprise given the complicated nature of his studies. Usually a biopic assumes the genius of its subject rather than explaining it, but this film does neither to account for the magic of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ performances. Their pathos is understood on an interpersonal level, and then it is strongly felt.
“Theory of Everything” is playing at a/perture cinemas throughout the week. You can find showtimes and get tickets HERE.