2015 Oscar Nominees – The Theory of Everything

22 Feb

Ask anyone to name a famous scientist, and practically anyone who doesn’t say “Neil DeGrasse Tyson” would say “Stephen Hawking.”  But very few would be able to tell you anything about Hawking, at least anything that doesn’t involve his wheelchair or computerized voice.

The Theory of Everything aims to fill in the gaps, telling the story of Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane.The movie starts as Hawking (Best Actor nominee Eddie Redmayne) is about to reach three turning points in his life: meeting his future wife, Jane (Best Actress nominee Felicity Jones) at a Cambridge University party; choosing a subject for his doctoral thesis; and being diagnosed with the motor neuron disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As his control over his body deteriorates, his relationship with Jane thrives, and his academic reputation soars.  The film follows the progression of all three, and is as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s.

The challenge of the movie in general, and Redmayne’s performance specifically, is to take what could be a showy, “actory” role and to embody it, to make it real.  Add to this the fact that much of the public knows what Hawking looks like and sounds like now, thanks to the scientist’s appearances on television, most specifically The Big Bang Theory, and the challenge is multiplied. Fortunately, Redmayne is up to the task.  His Hawking starts off gawky and shy, and the progression of his infirmities could come across and mawkish or cartoony.  And, in some scenes, it does seem to be edging that way.  But then Redmayne demonstrates the intelligence and humor which remains vital within Hawking with a raised eyebrow or a twitch of the lips, and the performance is pulled back from the brink.

If Redmayne’s challenge is in large part due to the public’s familiarity with Hawking, then Jones’ is exactly the opposite; she has to make the audience believe that Jane is invested in Stephen despite his limitations and the increasing difficulty of being his wife and helpmate, without turning the character into one of many stereotypes: the long-suffering wife, the staunch martyr to her husband’s fame, or the bland and boring “woman behind the man”.  To her credit, Jones fully avoids these traps. And while her character is not limited by physical infirmity the way her husband is, some of Jones’ best work is silent and subtle, as in an early scene, in which Jane, after goading Stephen into a game of croquet, realizes exactly how far Hawking’s disease has already progressed.

As to the rest of the movie, there’s not much else to say; with lead actors of lesser caliber, the film would not be out of place on the History Channel or AMC.  That’s not said to criticize those outlets, which have produced some very good work but which, to date, have not produced any Best Picture nominees. The movie does nothing particularly earthshaking or groundbreaking in its structure or execution.  It simply frames its two leads and lets them act.  And, in this case, that’s quite enough.

I give it 7 Cheeseburgers

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