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Reviewing the Movies of 2014, Part XII: The Theory of Everything

Updated on February 16, 2015

Another Best Picture and Best Actor Nominee about a famous mathematician?

As I have noted before in my hubs, things often come in pairs, and I tend to be amused by some of the trends I've seen. That not one but two of this year's top-profile Oscar contenders are period pieces based on famous Twentieth-Century math nerds is one of the more amusing coincidences in recent movie history. What's particularly interesting about it is that, like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything is really quite an excellent movie; likewise, Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne's take on Stephen Hawking are both finely tuned, Oscar-level performances. I'm not positive what chances the two films have in those two categories; I still think Michael Keaton will walk away with Best Actor, though Redmayne is his strongest competition, and the Best Picture race is most likely a dead heat between Birdman and Boyhood. That said, both films managed to score nods for their awesome musical scores, and these along with the also-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel make for an extremely rare instance of the Academy ALMOST getting their nominees for Original Score right (I have not yet seen Interstellar or Mr. Turner, but Joe Hisaishi's lovely score for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Justin Hurwitz's jazzy backbeat to Whiplash and John Powell's Celtic-flavored music for How to Train Your Dragon 2 were all worthy contenders that can be called snubs in this race). Anyway, enough Oscar commentary for now; time to have a look at the film.

The Theory of Everything

The Academy loves a good love story, they love a good biopic, and they love a good story about a real-life person facing and overcoming phenomenal odds. Therefore, it is little surprise they love The Theory of Everything, though we'll have to wait until this weekend to learn just how much. The story of famed astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time is but one of many contributions that has placed him in the public consciousness even to this day, this film is an often sad, melancholy or just plain uncomfortable film to watch, but it is just as often uplifting, one could even say inspiring. Everything about the production is handled with grace, including excellent camerawork, creative editing, brilliant acting and a rather classic musical score. It also does a fine job showing Hawking's rather rapid deterioration from ALS ("Lou Gehrig's Disease"), and the difficulties associated with such a condition, while also celebrating the sheer willpower necessary to live on and survive despite all odds. That the film is based on Hawking's first wife Jane's memoir is an interesting point, though this certainly seems a remarkably balanced account of the story.

The story begins with a young Hawking as a brilliant student at Cambridge, one who already had a reputation for thinking solidly outside the box. At a party one evening he meets a charming and pretty young lady named Jane, and the two seem instantly to be somewhat smitten with each other. It's not long before the two are spending some time together; it's also not long before the audience knows that his wholehearted love of physics and her Christian beliefs will put them at odds with each other eventually, but early on they seem remarkably amused by each other's beliefs, and genuinely keen on learning from each other. It's also not long at all before we get glimpses of Hawking's neurological issues--slight tremors in his hands, an excess of clumsiness in the way he walks. One day he trips and falls, landing roughly, and is taken to the hospital; there he is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease, which he later tells his friend Brian is "Lou Gehrig's Disease," forcing his friend to work through the confusing mention of sports to get at the point--the doctors have given him two years to live. Hawking shuts himself away, even shutting out Jane; she won't have it, though, and forces him to let her back in, and before long they are married. With his solid support system now in place, however, he doesn't let it get him down so much; though his disease continues to worsen, he and Jane face it stolidly, and indeed before long are also proud parents twice over. Meanwhile, he manages to make some startling discoveries about the origins of the universe, making him something of a celebrity in scientific circles. As the years go on, Jane reaches out to a choir director, Jonathan, as the strain of caring for Hawking becomes more than she can bear alone. When a third child comes along, things get even tougher. I won't go further than that, for though this is all public record, the fun is in seeing how it all plays on the screen. Suffice it to say, the movie does have a nice ending. After all, Hawking's "two years" are already up to about fifty or so, and he has lived to enjoy a level of celebrity very rare for scientists; also, a biopic like this based on Jane's memoir would not have been possible if they had a "bad end." As to the much-ballyhooed performances in this film: One, Eddie Redmayne is, indeed, quite phenomenal as Professor Hawking. He not only showcases an excellent acting talent, but he nails (as best I can tell) the physicality of the role; Oscar loves this, and Redmayne is a very real and viable threat to Michael Keaton's chances of winning. Personally, I am torn on who I thought did the better job; I went with Keaton myself, but it's by a hair. Felicity Jones, meanwhile, does a lovely job as Jane; she is charming, and strongly essays Jane's flirtatiousness and adoration in the early part of the film, slowly revealing more and more cracks beneath the facade as the film goes on. Of the actors not nominated for Oscar, I like David Thewlis, and consider him to be a consistently underrated actor--as Hawking's friend and mentor Dennis Sciama he does an excellent job. Charlie Cox as Jonathan, Harry Lloyd as Brian, and Maxine Peake as Elaine Mason all did a great job, and Simon McBurney as Hawking's father was particularly good. I also was impressed by Emily Watson's limited screentime as Jane's mother, and she was one of this year's strongest arguments for Best Bit Player/ Cameo--Female.

Final Analysis

The Theory of Everything 8.5/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (James Marsh), Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Actress (Felicity Jones), Supporting Actor (David Thewlis), Supporting Actor (Simon McBurney), Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten), Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Film Editing, Original Score (Johann Johannsson), Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; arguably so for Supporting Actor (Charlie Cox), Supporting Actress (Maxine Peake) and Supporting Actress (Emily Watson). Nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Actress (Felicity Jones), Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten) and Original Score (Johann Johannsson). A strong argument for Best Use of Music in film; also, a strong argument in Emily Watson for Best Bit Player/ Cameo--Female.

Will purchase? Definitely, though not likely right away.

Another excellent film down. I do love Oscar season, for all the great films I get to watch to prepare for the big show. This was a fine film, deserving of at least the bulk of the praise it has gotten. As always, I hope you have found my comments useful and entertaining, and I wish you happy viewing!

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