The Theory of Everything

It’s biopic season, which not coincidentally, coincides with Oscar season. While it’s easy to be cynical about these things, I really shouldn’t be. A lot of good stuff gets released this time of year. And biopics allow actors a great platform to show off their talents so there are some thrilling performances.
Twenty years ago the role of Stephen Hawking would have gone to Daniel Day Lewis. He would have nailed it; won the Best Actor Oscar and we still would be talking about it today. But Hawking was in the middle of his story twenty years ago, and Lewis already has played a role requiring similar skills in My Left Foot. He wouldn’t have been interested.
So the role goes to Eddie Redmayne, a classically trained veteran of the West End, England’s theatre district. He’s been in a few films, most notably Les Miserables and he is well able to handle the physical challenges of playing a man who gradually loses the use of his body. And, as he proves in this film, he is a first rate actor.
The odd thing is that The Theory of Everything is guilty of almost every sin I complain about in biopics. It is a series of events, connected only by the characters. And these events don’t really build in intensity either. This is a narrative structure that, in my view, is destined for failure.
And yet somehow it works.
There are two reasons. The first is the performances of the two leads. Eddie Redmayne is absolutely brilliant as Stephen. Films have been made about people struggling nobly against debilitating and fatal diseases before. But this is different. Stephen Hawking faced the indignities of his condition, which is ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, not only with determination, but with humor. This comes through, even in the later scenes after he has lost his ability to talk. When it comes to acting solely with his eyebrows no one can touch Redmayne. In the early scenes he straddles the line between being painfully awkward socially and supremely confident and ambitious in his intelligence. When the doctor gives him the diagnosis of ALS, the first question he asks is if it will affect his brain. Later when the disease is putting up more and more seemingly insurmountable barriers to communication, he perseveres and overcomes them.
Felicity Jones also shines as Jane, a pretty young PhD candidate, who falls in love with this odd genius. Stephen’s diagnosis comes in the early stages of their courtship and he tries to drive her away. But Jane is just as stubborn as Stephen and she stays, taking care of him and eventually their children. You see what this is costing her, delaying her own pursuit of a doctorate and eating away at her sense of self.
Which leads us to the second reason The Theory of Everything works: it is not so much a biopic of Stephen Hawking as it is the story of his and Jane’s marriage. The movie is adapted from Jane’s memoir of their years together and it starts with their meeting and ends when the relationship ends. I wish more biopics would limit themselves to only a certain aspect of the subject’s life rather than trying to take them from the cradle to the grave. Too large a scope is the diagnosis for too many bad biopics. The amazing thing is that although Stephen’s condition is a factor in the marriage’s failure, it isn’t the only one. These are two people who simply grew apart. The script and the performances capture this.
There are a few more biopics coming out this year and some of them have pretty good buzz, but it is hard to imagine The Theory of Everything not being one of the best when it’s all over.

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