Monday, November 17, 2014

Movie Review: "The Theory of Everything"

Science is definitely one of my weaker subjects, so I'll admit going into The Theory of Everything I didn't know much about Stephen Hawking, although his book A Brief History of Time was a fixture on the best-seller list in the late 1980s when I managed a bookstore during college. And while the film gave me more perspective on Hawking than I had, what it gave me more than anything was a tremendous admiration for his courage and determination as well as his spectacular intellect.

Hawking (a masterful Eddie Redmayne) was a doctoral student at Cambridge in the early 1960s, an absolutely brilliant mind yet utterly unsure on what to focus his PhD studies. At a party he meets Jane (Like Crazy's Felicity Jones), a feisty poetry student who is intrigued by him but not quite certain if she can handle his intelligence and unorthodox views. But as the two begin falling in love, tragedy hits—Stephen is struck with a motor neuron disease similar to ALS, and is given two years to live.

A lesser woman would have taken the opportunity to leave Stephen, and a lesser man would have allowed himself to wallow in self-pity until his body betrayed him. But as the movie (which is based on Jane's memoir) proves, neither Stephen nor Jane are lesser people. The movie tracks Stephen's rapid physical decline, juxtaposed against his brilliant scientific discoveries. It also chronicles Stephen and Jane's relationship, both the highs and the lows, as well as the challenges that his condition caused their marriage.

In movies such as My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables, Redmayne proved himself to be an actor of diverse range and a strong presence. But nothing I've seen him in prepared me for his utter transformation into Stephen Hawking. At the start of the movie, he is a floppy-haired, clumsy, almost impish presence, with Austin Powers-esque glasses and a mouth that moves as fast as his mind. And as the disease takes its toll, Redmayne metamorphosizes physically, drawing his body into itself, but his face, while often frozen into grimaces, never loses its expressive ability. This is a performance on par with Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. (Seriously, he's that good.)

And if Redmayne's Stephen is the physical center of the movie, Jones' Jane is the emotional center, and her performance is no less brilliant. I've been a fan since first seeing her in Like Crazy in 2011 (here's my review of that one), but she is truly impressive here, playing the sometimes-idealistic, sometimes-vulnerable woman who clearly served as a catalyst for Stephen Hawking's bravery. One scene early in the movie, when she watches Stephen struggling shortly after being diagnosed, shows the range of emotions she is going through without resorting to a single stint of histrionics. I had goosebumps.

The other performances in the film are equally worthy of standing alongside Redmayne and Jones, particularly Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, the church choir director who becomes a companion to the Hawkings', and David Thewlis, as Stephen's mentor and professor. While the movie doesn't expect you to understand the science Stephen was so passionate about, it does give you numerous glimpses of his trademark flashes of humor, which again, make Redmayne's performance so nuanced.

To use a British-ism, I thought this movie was really lovely. But in the end, it is worth seeing mainly for the breathtaking performances. Redmayne is so clearly deserving of an Oscar for this role, and I hope that Jones' name will be among the Best Actress nominees this year as well. This is a love story, a story of triumph, and most importantly, the story of perseverance, and I am glad I had the chance to experience it.


  1. The Theory of Everything is the very British definition of a small cinematic treat.

  2. The film both adheres to and gently upends the conventions of the Great Man genre.