Sunday, November 23, 2014

"The Theory of Everything"

 4 / 5 

On the surface, The Theory of Everything seems safe and pretty, entirely proper in the way of beautiful British bio-pics that combine (could there be any better match?) the early 1960s and Oxford University.  Women wore dresses and gloves, men wore tailored suits and horn-rimmed glasses, and if lushly orchestrated music didn't really accompany them everywhere, it certainly should have.

Into this bucolic setting comes Stephen Hawking, played first with bumblingly intense sincerity and, later, with extraordinary clarity by Eddie Redmayne.  Before people like him were called science nerds, Hawking was the ultimate science nerd.

At a party, he meets a pretty, intellectual artistic type named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  They fall in love.  He proposes not marriage but a sweeping theoretical vision about time and life and understanding, the kind of theory that, underneath its mathematical density, cuts to the heart of what she cares about: It promises to explain everything, including, quite possibly, the presence and purpose of God.

Walking into The Theory of Everything, it's impossible not to know it is about Hawking, which makes it impossible not to know about Hawking's physical ailment, but what is most noteworthy about this frequently polite and lovely film is that it barrels head on into the conundrum faced not by Hakwing's battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but the effect it has on the woman who has pledged her love for him.

The Theory of Everything is not A Beautiful Mind set in the cosmos -- until the closing credits, its depictions Hawking's theories cinematically are brief and, with one exception, limited to chalkboards.  In this, the film struggles just a bit as it weighs the importance of Hawking's work with its primary concern: the toll Hawking's physical ailment took on those around him.

Audiences going into the Theory of Everything might be surprised at some of the questions it wrestles with: What happens when the sexual component of a marriage deteriorates, when the caretaker for an infirm spouse turns to someone else for companionship?  What is the price to a marriage when both the emotional and physical needs are unequal?

In that regard, The Theory of Everything might seem disappointingly narrow-minded -- it is not a movie about Hawking's theories, his work and his accomplishments; it is in many ways a more traditional marital drama.

But within that more familiar structure, it remains undeniably moving and unusually compelling, thanks in great part to Jones and Redmayne.

As Jane Hawking, Jones has the less flashy part by far; her physical transformation primarily involves the changing fashions and hair styles of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  (The time shifts are low key, the fashion changes subtle, so the film really does impart a wonderful sense of the movement of time as measured by outward appearance.)  Her emotional shift is slow, but steady.  Jones does a wonderful job at conveying the disappointment and anguish of someone who agreed to remain committed and loyal to her spouse -- but who didn't expect the struggle would be either as long or as exhausting as it turns out to be.

As Redmayne impressively conveys the personality and life behind a man trapped in a virtually unmoving body, Jones anchors the film with emotional honesty.  The Theory of Everything poses challenging, difficult questions -- not just mathematical and theoretical, but emotional and practical.

Stephen Hawking's theories describe the vastness of the universe, but The Theory of Everything presents a stark reminder -- presented in deceptively lovely ways -- that no matter what happens in the rest of the universe, what happens inside our hearts and minds is perhaps even more unpredictable and unknowable.

Viewed Nov. 23, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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