Saturday, November 22, 2014

*NEW* The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh

Films dealing with physical disabilities are not new.  Going back to dramas like "The Winning Team" (1952, about baseball star Grover Cleveland Alexander who had epilepsy) and "The Elephant Man" (1980, about Joseph, but called John, Merrick who may have suffered from a deformity known as neurofibromatosis type 1). These, and countless other films through the years, attempt to show how such illnesses have tested the will of talented or decent people.  Often these are derided as Oscar-bait and overly sentimental heart-tuggers.  Stephen Hawking's story is no different in this regard.  No doubt plenty of observers will have similar complaints about the new James Marsh drama "The Theory of Everything," which begins expanding from its limited release this week.

The film tells the story of Hawking's courtship and relationship with Jane Wilde, whom he meets at Cambridge University in the 1960's.  Based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, we see how the brilliant cosmologist Hawking suffers his fate by slowly succumbing to the physical degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.  Focusing on how the couple finds ways to maintain a sense of normalcy in their life together while battling this debilitating illness, Jane and Stephen share a loving home, have children and continue to encourage Hawkings' scientific studies.

As with all such situations, the burden is high for Jane.  She takes on the difficult task of caring for her husband while he eventually cannot move at all.  Her mother Beryl (played by Emily Watson, in a brief appearance) suggests she join the local church choir.  When she does so she meets the handsome widower Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), who becomes part of the family as a friend who helps Jane with Stephen's care.  There is an instant connection between Jonathan and Jane, which leads to speculation that something more is going on.  Eventually the talk sends Jonathan away. though the stage has been set for the Hawking marriage to dissolve, despite the love shared by the couple.  Understanding this dynamic, Stephen early on tells Jane he would not blame her if she were to stray, but her Christian background seems to have held her back from acting on this idea.  She later would marry Jonathan.  So, too, would Stephen marry his caretaker in later years.  Yet the two remained great friends.

The decision to focus on the marriage, rather than solely on Stephen Hawking's scientific theories may prompt some to criticize the structure as old-fashioned romanticism.  The theories about time and man's place among the stars is not ignored in the film.  In fact, it is given its due throughout the film, but the heart of the film is in the unyielding love that allows that mind to thrive.  Indeed, it is perhaps cliche to note that "love conquers all."  After all, though, Hawking was given only two years to live by doctors, and he is still with us at age 72. 

I suspect critics who hated Ron Howard's unabashedly sentimental "A Beautiful Mind" are bound to dislike "The Theory of Everything," but the acting in this film is impressive.  Eddie Redmayne, who broke out two years ago with a strong interpretation of Marius in the musical "Les Miserables," not only conveys the physical hardships but also the formidably disarming twinkle in Hawking's eye, the sense that this is a special man.  Felicity Jones, whose star rose with the film "Like Crazy" a few years ago, is tender and determined as Jane.  She projects Jane's love for Stephen with a sparkle, and is affecting as she attempts to grapple with the reality that she may not be in love with him anymore.  Their performances, and chemistry, is what you'll remember long after seeing the film.

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