Sunday, 8 March 2015

Love in the Time of ALS

“The Theory of Everything”


Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

The similarities between James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking bio-pic,
The Theory of Everything, and Morten Tyldum’s Alan Turing bio-pic, The Imitation Game (reviewed on the blog), have already been pointed out and commented on far too many times, and are any way obvious to all readers and viewers. They shall not be listed here. What I shall say is that they’re so similar, I had to check a number of times to make sure that The Theory of Everything is not a Weinstein Company production, which it very much resembles (and which The Imitation Game is), and I can quote a paragraph from my review of that film here, and it’d be just as apt:

“Viewers … know what to expect – a staid and ingratiating account of an extraordinary individual going through tough times, but managing to grandstand their … emotions before a satisfying end is reached. Sets, costumes and diction are meticulously crafted to fit the period … and only conventional camera and editing techniques are used: we wouldn’t want those getting in the way of the quiet heroism of whichever protagonist is being honoured this time. Admiration is our watchword.”

Where Turing’s obstacles were his social disorder and illegal homosexuality, Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne) is motor neuron disease. And where Turing’s were back-dropped by the gloom of World War II and the era right after it, as well as told rather glumly in Tyldum’s film, Hawking’s goes on in the optimistic later decades of the 20th century. Of course, it helps that Hawking, being of the heterosexual persuasion, has a lady love (Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones) to cheer (and, later, wheel) him along, and that every moment of his life seems improbably bathed in abundant quantities of golden sunlight. As long as his smiles are still discernible, rare is the moment when we see him without one. Even during the distasteful task of being helped by a friend in his lavatory activities, Hawking is seen grinning ludicrously and mumbling, with his stroke-victim delivery, cheerful thanks to the friend.

Manohla Dargis, in her review of The King's Speech in the New York Times, wrote, “British films that make it to American screens these days often fall into two distinct niches: life is miserable and life is sweet.” As we all know, that film came “with heaping spoonfuls of sugar” (Ms Dargis again), and the same has been wrought of this material. Happy, dear moments are in no short supply, and Marsh and the screenplay pause every now and then to wring a few tears. And, as with The Imitation Game, many more similarities can be found between this film and Tom Hooper’s first Oscar-picking endeavour. Even moments of the score here have been lifted from Alexandre Desplat’s work for that film, and Hooper’s beloved fish-eye lens is used, to puzzling effect, when Hawking is informed of his affliction.

I may have reacted more positively to all this pandering if a slightly more realistic view of Hawking’s life had been given. After Hawking and Wilde’s initial meeting until the day she learns of his disease, no account is offered of their relationship, and no hints are given as to their attraction to each other. And when Wilde finds out, and announces her resolution to stick with him, we jump straight to their wedding, and the birth of their children. After that, they have no telling conversations, no revealing of emotions to one another, no cathartic exchanges, not even any fruitless fights. All we have is Wilde, showing strain at the pressures put on her life of looking after her growing children as well as her grown husband, and Hawking, gleefully wheeling about and searching for an equation to explain the ways of the universe.

When Hawking is diagnosed, the doctor tells him his life expectancy is estimated at two years. Quite obviously, Hawking surpassed expectations, but no sense of that is given at any point. Nowhere is it mentioned how long Hawking has survived, no mention is made of how long it is since that diagnosis, and no notice is given, until the final rousing scene, to how wildly he has exceeded any realistic hope. We also gain very little understanding of what it is that Hawking was and is working on, in his first thesis or any since then, and a very minor impression of his astounding achievements is offered. Even Wilde’s efforts are glanced over, and all we see is her frustration and unhappiness, despite her love for Hawking, who seems to obtain more solace and support from Wagner than he does from her.

Redmayne and Jones are astonishingly lovely performers, who permeate whatever they do with radiant charm. I’m glad they’re finally getting major recognition by Hollywood and the wider public, but this film is unworthy of them. It’s hardly that their work is lacking, but that they’re given miserably little to do. Redmayne delights far more in the utterly endearing role of Colin Clarke in My Week With Marilyn, one of the better bio-pics to emerge in recent years, and Jones’s work in last year’s The Invisible Woman is a good deal more nuanced and emotionally complex. Turn to those two films to see what these two lovelies can do. To be sure, Redmayne’s work here is above being merely dismissed. He uses what minimal facial and hand muscles he can to convey Hawking’s wit and slight vanity, but other character traits are left untouched. We are given very little explanation as to why Hawking and Wilde eventually leave each other for the people they do. Hawking’s life and work are ripe for investigation and contemplation, but what’s made of it here is very much lacking in that regard.

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne basking in England's copious sunlight

2 comments:

  1. I thought this film was BRILLIANT! It left me with a new perspective and inspired. I can’t stop thinking about that final scene; it seriously gets me through the difficult parts of my day. That’s the mark of a good film, in my opinion. It was beautiful; I experienced so many emotions whilst watching it. I thought Redmayne was exceptional, even Hawking said, “At times, I thought he was me.” I know you hate the troubled, British, genius formula, but I seem to love it. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are all high up on my list of favourite movies. Although I disagree with you, I loved seeing your opinion, as I always do. Looking forward to the next review! :D

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment :) Your reaction seems pretty genuine, and I can't argue with it. But the triteness of this film's beauty and the lack of substance beneath its sheen prevent me from responding similarly. My problem with "the troubled, British, genius formula" is precisely that it's a formula, and used much too often, much too mediocrely for this film to have any lasting effect. Mike Leigh's 2014 bio-pic of William Turner, "Mr Turner", eschews convention and veneration, and is a far superior, far more moving moviegoing experience.

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