I think I’m actually out of “too many true-story films” jokes. I guess I’m just fresh out of ideas. Say, just like contemporary Hollywood!
Now Showing this week is The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh. The second male-British-genius biopic this Oscars season, The Theory of Everything focuses on the work of cosmologist Stephan Hawking while he struggled personally and professionally with motor neurone disease. While undertaking a PHD at Cambridge in the 1960s, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) encounters three life changing events: the beginnings of his theories regarding black holes and their impacts on the creation of the universe, his diagnosis of motor neurone disease and, the most important of all, he met his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones). What follows is a very slow and deflating, yet quite inspiring, story where a man whose deck is stacked against him but he still manages to achieve such incredible things. And yet, in the end, all his achievements never could have been enough.
Let’s get something out of the way first. The most talked about aspect of this film is Redmayne’s performance as Professor Hawking and the praise he is getting for, as a recent-ish editorial in The Guardian puts it, “cripping up”. That editorial said it it is offensive to disabled viewers to see actors “faking their identities”, and compared it to the social norm that performing other races is offensive. Well, first off, faking identities is literally what acting is: you pretend to be other people, either fictitious or real. While I agree that an actor putting on “black face” is offensive, I think it is OK for actors to portray disabilities, mental illnesses, or any other kind of identity shaping attributes as long as they are accurately researched and handled with care. Changing the accuracy of a condition or cultural identity attribute for the sake of convenience or humour isn’t OK, that would be very offensive; but as long as it is uncompromisingly realistic then I have no problem with it.
Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Should any film about a Vietnam veteran only cast a real Vietnam veterans, else other veterans shout “he wasn’t there, he doesn’t understand what we go through everyday,”? And in the case of The Theory of Everything, how could you show the stages of the disease over the 20 odd years that the film takes place? How could you show Hawking before his diagnosis unless the actor is able to perform without the physical limitations of motor neurone disease? It just wouldn’t be feasible without faking it.
I think Redmayne’s praise and nomination is well deserved, as his performance is very impressive. Not only is his portrayal of a person living with motor neurone disease incredibly powerful, but his imitation of Hawking himself is stunning. As a young Hawking, Redmayne is almost indistinguishable from all the real photos I have seen of the man, right down to that goofy grin. And as an elder Hawking, he looks and behaves strikingly similar to the man we see today. He put himself through quite a transformation for the role, and it is clear this is why he has been nominated. He’s not my choice to win, but the man has no doubt earned his nomination.
Wow, that went on longer than I expected. Moving on, or else I could be here all day!
The Theory of Everything‘s high praise should not be all about Redmayne though; just as much should be given to his co-star Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking. Jane goes through a similar transition as her husband, as the responsibility of managing his care takes its toll on her. Much like Hawking, when you think back to how Jane looked and behaved at the film’s beginning compared to its end, you can see how large an arc the character went through, and Jones performed it with such subtlety and conviction. Their relationship felt legitimate, they made quite the leading pair.
The only aspects of the film that I felt worked against it was its pacing and its creative liberties. The film uses some pretty intense time jumps, skimming over some pretty important moments in Stephan and Jane’s life, and then lingers over some of the smaller ones in the middle. The film has a very definite lull in the middle act, before picking up again once Hawking’s iconic electronic voice comes into the story. As for creative liberties, there were just some sections where it felt like the film was going out of its way to tug at heart strings, either with tragedy or inspiration. There were examples of both in the one scene when an elder Hawking is giving a QnA session, in which he gets a standing ovation from a bunch of science majors (yeah right!) for saying “where there is life, there is hope” and also has a “man, I wish I could walk” fantasy in the middle. I’ve never met the man, but the film Hawking, at that stage of his life, didn’t strike me as someone still hung up on his condition.
The Theory of Everything is, so-far, the most “Oscar bait-ey” film this awards season that I’ve seen. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, some Oscar bait movies are still good films. Whether the Academy takes the bait is yet to be seen, but I suspect it will. But don’t count the movie out because of it, it isn’t the film’s fault the Academy is predictable.
See you next time!
Want to read/hear more of Tom rambling about social issues in cinema? No? Well that’s good, because he doesn’t do any of that on his website or as co-host on news/comedy podcast Unnatural Selection. And for a limited time, you can hear him talking movie-esque things on The Popculturists leading up to the Oscars, live Thursday nights or downloadable every Friday.