I HAD THOUGHT that Michael Keaton would be a shoo in for the Oscar in March until I saw Eddie Redmayne’s astonishing performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (London is five hours ahead of New York and a month behind in terms of the movies…so January here, unlike there, isn’t that dog time when you only have access to movies such as “Taken 3”).
Redmayne, remarkable in “My Week with Marilyn” and soon to be seen as the evil one in the Wachowski brothers’ new sci fi epic, “Jupiter Ascending”, has been able to channel Hawking’s physical debilitation – the familiar slumped physique with his slack jawed, expressionless face – in a way that’s quite eerie. Deprived of an actor’s familiar tool-kit (at its basic: voice and gesture), he still manages, through the slightest of facial twitches and expressions deep behind his eyes, to communicate Hawking’s emotional life: his rich sense of humor, his frustrations, his immense charm and of course, his often arrogant brilliance.
If Keaton’s “Birdman” was energized by its sense of movement, of physicality – from the character’s frenzied lash out at all around him to the camera’s ever-moving flow – Redmayne’s Hawking is all about stillness. It’s as if director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) wants to drive us beyond his subject’s physical debilitation and deep into his brain (we’re told in the movie that Hawking’s motor-neuron disease affects all muscles but for two: the brain and that other one from where men lodge their deepest thoughts)
More than anything else, and surprisingly, the movie’s title is a misnomer. Sure, Hawking’s life work has been that of finding a simple, elegant theory that links everything together (basically the unpredictable weirdness of the quantum world with the vastness of Einstein’s cosmic one…a difficult task, relatively speaking), and the story is punctuated by brief references to Hawking’s discoveries about black holes and the nature of the universe.
But “The Theory of Everything” is essentially a love story (not surprising when you consider that Tim Bevan – of “Love Actually” fame – is the main producer)
It’s a story based upon the book, “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking” by Jane Hawking, his first wife. So it’s very much her story. Indeed, the full story of the movie is “the Theory of Everything. The incredible story of Jane and Stephen Hawking”. He’s the big name attraction, but his story is only the half of it. “…Theory…” tracks the progress of Jane and Stephen’s love, and, more importantly, the kind of commitment and strength demanded from her as she is forced to morph from lover to carer. Her commitment to Hawking is absolute. It’s also one that threatens any sense of an individual identity. She is initially forced away from her own academic studies into becoming a mere extension of her famous spouse – interpreting his garbled words for others, pushing him around everywhere, caring for him physically and still managing to raise an ever expanding boisterous family. Early in their relationship, when Hawking is diagnosed with having the incurable and fatal disease (he’s given two years), she makes the choice that love matters more, no matter what the future may bring; and tells Hawking’s father (Simon McBurney, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) “I may look weak. But I’m not. I am very strong”.
As Jane, Felicity Jones (“The Invisible Woman”) delivers a finely calibrated performance. We see the strength grow in her as she shoulders the enormous weight and responsibility of curing for her fragile, wasted spouse. It is only with Jonathan, a music teacher and family friend (Charlie Cox from “Boardwalk Empire”) that her individuality can finally reassert itself.
As a love story, “The Theory of Everything” is refreshingly good and such a change from the corny, childish love stories Hollywood foists upon its public. The story tracks through the Jane/Stephen love affair and then shows it slowly unspool – honestly and without histrionics. Stephen may only be able to communicate through blinks of an eye-lid, but, the old rogue, it doesn’t stop him from developing a liaison with his personal carer and assistant, Elaine (Maxine Peake). The man simply refuses to accept that the failure of his body must mean the failure of his life. Indeed, the story suggests, the need to love and be loved is so fundamental a part of the human spirit, that, perhaps this is the root both of her and his inner strengths. It is love that sustained their relationship and it is love that has sustained his will to live way beyond anything science can offer. Indeed it was her love for him that literally kept him alive when she refused the option of pulling the plug as he lay dying of pneumonia in an Italian hospital.
In other words, the single greatest aid that has kept Hawking alive (he’s now 72) isn’t his mechanical devices, isn’t even his insatiable curiosity to find the theory of everything.
It’s just love.
The Theory of Everything
Dir: James Marsh; Writers: Anthony McCarten and Jane Hawkin; Cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme (“A Most Wanted Man”); Production Designer: John Paul Kelly (“About Time”)