Several times recently, I have hinted at my frustration about movies coming out in limited release. It is not unusual for a film that isn’t guaranteed to be a commercial hit to come out first in several hundred theaters and then get a nationwide release a couple of weeks later. It helps the studio hedge its bet while generating buzz around a film. It seems to me, however, that this year an unusually large number of films have come out in limited release and their nationwide release has been seriously delayed, if it ever comes. That means that while a string of films featuring interesting subjects, award-worthy performances, and innovative styles gets released in the major cities, the rest of us are stuck with the likes of Horrible Bosses 2. I love a stupid comedy as much as the next person, but not having the option to see the more interesting and more artfully made films feels unfair. Fortunately, Fort Wayne has Cinema Center, which regularly screens independent films. This week, however, I just decided to get in the car and drive out of town to see The Theory of Everything.
The Theory of Everything is the life story and love story of world famous physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones). The film is beautifully filmed and features phenomenal performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. If it ever does come to a theater near you, I highly recommend it. The story starts as Hawking begins his Ph.D. at Cambridge, unsure of what to study, but quickly falling in love with Jane, an undergraduate studying Romance languages and literature. Not long into their relationship, Stephen is diagnosed with motor neurone disease and told that he has two years to live. Stephen tries to brush Jane off, partly protecting her, partly protecting himself, believing it would be better to throw himself into his work. Jane won’t be deterred, however, and the pair gets married. Defying his prognosis, Stephen lives for much longer than two years—he’s still with us, after all—and he and Jane have a long marriage and three children together. The film tells the story of their love and the ways that Stephen’s life and relationships change as his body deteriorates.
I think what is particularly effective about the way The Theory of Everything tells the story is that, rather than focusing primarily on Hawking’s successful career, or the medical aspects of his life, the impetus of the story rests on his relationships. The movie tracks the changes in Jane and Stephen’s marriage over time, his continued friendships with his classmates and advisor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), and family friend Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox). I think that in focusing on the relationships, the film avoids hero worship and instead presents a nuanced portrait of a brilliant man and his also-quite-intelligent wife and the sacrifices she makes to support him, fighting to keep him from getting trapped inside himself.
Visually, the film focuses on the body in a really beautiful way. Toward the beginning, the camera lingers over hands, feet, and faces in a way that works as foreshadowing, but also celebrates young love. For example, Stephen clutches a napkin with Jane’s number on it and his hand trembles. It’s not clear if the trembling is nerves or early signs of his illness. Later, the couple spins joyfully around in circles and it looks like they’re constantly on the verge of falling over. They don’t, but the moment is full of joy and foreboding.
In addition to the nuance of the story and the beauty of the film-making, the performances are fantastic. Eddie Redmayne captures the sense of humor that Hawking is known for alongside the complicated progression of the disease through his body. It is fascinating how he manages to make his young, healthy body look increasingly weak. In one scene, he tries to pull himself up the stairs and the physicality of the performance is breathtaking. Throughout the film, Felicity Jones says a lot with just her face. As Jane struggles under the strain of caring for Stephen, while doing her own Ph.D. no less, the mixed emotions read clearly on her face. She pairs toughness with affection convincingly, doing a lot of justice to a young woman in an extraordinary and taxing situation. The supporting cast is excellent as well, but the heart of the film rests in the chemistry and the talent of Redmayne and Jones.
I thought about The Theory of Everything for days after I saw it. The details and the complexities of the relationships stuck with me. I rate it 4.5/5 stars.
The Theory of Everything was directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten, based on the book Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. It runs 123 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material.
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