TIFF 2014 Review: ‘The Theory of Everything’
As Stephen and Jane Hawking, Eddie Redymane and Felicity Jones give fantastic performances in The Theory of Everything — a film that spans more than two decades of their relationship. But powerhouse performances in prestige bio-pics are a bit on the regular every fall film season. What makes James Marsh’s biopic extremely powerful is his choice of color and film stock to show changes in time and perspective. And for a film about Stephen Hawking, the premiere contemporary voice on the physics of time, space and, gee, the universe, it’s only appropriate that the standard bio-pic formula is expanded here.
For Hawking enthusiasts, however, The Theory of Everything might feel incomplete. Most of his achievements in the field are given passing — but resounding — applause by his contemporaries. But that choice is made to make room for Jane’s parallel story. As she is presented as more than a woman who had his children and who helped him as his muscles failed him as he went from relatively healthy (there are a few small hints at his muscles faltering during minor instances) to being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and given two years to live.
Jane is someone who has conviction in her love, but also has doubts and frustrations in their marriage. And with the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones, which starts in their school days, being so strong, the equal screen time is entirely welcome (their courtship is particularly gorgeously shot and performed in an early, stunning May Ball sequence where all the other students look alien and blue on the dance floor, and Stephen points out the detergent splotches that are seen from the UV lighting; as they walk away they both, while drunkenly composed, try to hide their attraction while still trying to impress the other with facts and studies — which is even more attractive).
And while Redmayne has fantastic control of his own body while portraying Hawking losing control of his muscles and Jones maintains a strong separate personhood, the added success of the film is the fantastic cinematography by Benoît Delhomme. Early in the film, Stephen and his university chum, Brian (Harry Lloyd) are biking to a party. There is a magnificent dusk-approaching blue hue from the bridges and buildings matched by an emerald from the trees. Early on this is the first of many color sequences that imply some sort of aquarium type of lighting. There’s the blue fluorescent bodies at the ball, there’s a cramped physics presentation surrounded by deep navy chalkboards and a similar blue and green imbued hue in a tavern when Jane goes looking for Brian to try to find out why Stephen has vanished from classes.
An aquarium is a confined space with a lot of activity, just like Stephen’s condition, and the lighting, to me, greatly foreshadows the disease we know is coming. When Stephen does suddenly lose his muscle capacity, the film stock shifts to a faded newspaper coloring in that moment. And when Hawking discovers his idea for one of his most important papers, he is trapped inside a sweater that he can’t pull down over his head. The fireplace embers he sees through the sweater fibers first appear like a hellish vision before they become calming through his mental processing. While this scene does fit into a bio-pic lightbulb discovery moment, that Marsh lets you feel the entrapment of his body before the release of an idea, is immense.
Using that same aquarium analogy, as Stephen becomes the figurehead of all modern theorem, the narrative shifts in confinement toward Jane. After their marriage she raises their children and Stephen himself, with very little help. When her mother (always a welcome actress, Emily Watson, though probably miscast because having her for one scene places an emphasis on her arrival, never to be seen again) suggests that she join the church choir. We see Jane entering the church and that blue, green hue is mildly present, although it appears to be greatly smudgy, as if algae has accumulated and maintenance is required. And what she discovers is a widower (Charlie Cox) who assists both she and Stephen in different ways. And during a camping trip with her children, when Jane sneaks out of the tent into the wilderness she, the one who says earlier, “I know I don’t look like a terribly strong person,” indeed looks like a child leaving a carnival tent.
If the film falters at all, its in the final dozen or so minutes as you can feel it winding down to the epilogue summation. And if there’s any visual misstep, it’s with the single flourish of Hawking viewing himself while addressing a large crowd of admirers.
But the visual palette does such a great job of foreshadowing and indicating internal feelings — whether its falling in love or struggling in love — that it does indeed elevate the film from standard bio-pic tropes. Marsh also avoids using title cards to indicate passing of time. Instead he shoots 16mm home videos to show passage of time through their family life. For a physicist who primarily studies the formation and extinction of time, acknowledging time only through visual cues, is another brilliant bio-pic sidestep. All these pieces added together expand this bio-pic from just a collection of two great lead performances into a magnificent portrait of a relationship so strong that even their tired, selfish choices somehow can be mutually beneficial.