TORONTO – Actors who undergo extreme physical transformations for dramatic roles often are overpraised for their performances. That will never be the case for Eddie Redmayne”s remarkable depiction of Stephen Hawking in the new Focus Features drama “The Theory of Everything.”
Debuting at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, “Theory” begins with the great physicist and cosmologist enjoying life as a young doctoral student at Cambridge University. He's a goof with his mates and has his eye on the charming Medieval Studies major Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). All happy times before he's diagnosed with motor neuron disease and his body”s physical functions slowly slip away. While clearly a biopic about Hawking”s life, the movie focuses centrally on his illness and his relationship with Jane, who would eventually become his wife.
Showing great promise at Cambridge, Hawking”s world turns upside down when he suddenly collapses in a courtyard, falling face first to the ground. Doctors investigate and give him their usual diagnosis that he likely has just two years to live. After Hawking at first tries to push Jane away so he won't be a burden on her, the young couple eventually marries. As the years progress, Hawking lives long past his initial death sentence and three children are added to the mix. The rest of the film chronicles how difficult it is for the Hawkings to maintain a relationship as his condition gradually worsens and his celebrity as a world renowned theoretical physicist grows.
Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire,” “Shadowdancer”) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten admittedly omit some significant moments in Hawking”s life. For example, you”d never know he and his family spent a year living in Pasadena where he taught at CalTech and has returned almost every year. The film makes you falsely assume Hawking didn't even consider traveling until much later in his life. That being said, the filmmakers stick to the real story as closely as possible, especially in the context of conveying the consequences of Jane spending decades trying to raise their young children and take care of Stephen at the same time (often with no outside help). This conflict laces the movie with an honest tension that makes the entire film even more poignant and touching than one might expect.
Many moviegoers may think they already know a good deal about Hawking”s achievements, but they would do themselves a disservice to miss out on Redmayne”s almost perfect performance. Both he and Marsh provide subtle hints of Hawking”s impending condition before his diagnosis that not everyone will catch. As each stage takes away more and more of Hawking”s abilities, Redmayne carefully contorts his body and increasingly takes the form of the man you would easily recognize in silhouette. By the end of the film he has an almost uncanny resemblance to the modern day Hawking, who is still working hard at the age of 72. But let's remember, Hawking's movement is limited to pushing buttons on a speaking machine and moving his eyebrows when signaling something in a conversation. There is one particularly powerful scene in Hawking”s later years where he cries while the rest of his body barely moves (and I mean barely). It's a moment that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
Jones, who has been fantastic in films such as “Like Crazy” and “The Invisible Woman,” has to carry almost as heavy a load as Redmayne. Jane Hawking is usually the most physically active character on screen and she”s often helping to propel the story”s narrative (it”s worth noting the screenplay is based on her memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”). Along with her director, she has to convince the audience to have sympathy for Jane”s desires, even if they might not lead to a requisite happy ending.
Among the supporting cast, Charlie Cox is especially good as Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a friend of the family who becomes something more, and Harry Lloyd has some fine moments as Hawking”s Cambridge buddy Brian.
The standout among the tech credits has to be Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose gorgeous score brings an incredible emotional resonance to the picture. The only disappointment is Benoît Delhomme”s cinematography. The veteran DP did superb work on Anton Corbijn”s “A Most Wanted Man” earlier this year, but something about his lighting for “Theory” makes some of the scenes look much more “digital” than they should. Considering the film was projected on the large screen at the Princess of Wales Theater, this should not have been as apparent.
“The Theory of Everything” opens in limited release on Nov. 7.