One morning, when I was sixteen, I woke up with my eyes rolling madly in my head. No matter what I did, they wouldn’t focus, the room spinning in nauseating circles around my stationary body. I can still feel the way my confusion gave way to a sick feeling of dread, as I became convinced that something was horribly wrong with my body. All I could do was lie there powerless, desperately intoning some godless prayer to my own body to please not be broken. The whole episode might have taken less that two minutes, but the time until my eyes ceased their wild orbit of my eye-sockets and came back under my control felt like hours. And even then the ordeal wasn’t over. I spent the next few days in deathly fear that it would happen again, that there really was some cracked piece of circuitry in my body that could come loose at any time, and maybe never heal again, disabling me forever. A body is one of the most precious things you have in life. You only get one, and if it’s defective beyond repair, you’re stuck with it. Enjoy living life with your mind trapped in a shoddy piece of hardware. Thus it took a while for the fear to fully leave me. The paranoia that clawed at my mind all through the day gave way to a more vague rumbling of disquiet, which in turn gave way to a gentler worry that still had the capability to keep me tossing and turning in search of mental oblivion for a few extra hours each night. After a few months I was free. No hidden illness manifested itself and I was able to chalk it down to a single glitch of my inner wiring. Nothing ever came of it and I rarely think about that morning and the ensuing anxiety any more. But it was the first thing that came to mind during Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Steven Hawking. Redmayne’s portrayal of the terror that comes from your own body betraying you is spot-on, as is every other aspect of his performance. He’s playing a difficult character, one for whom social norms are an annoyance to be ignored when convenient, and yet he manages to convey an earnestness that makes the character endearing rather than infuriating. The role is highly physical, Redmayne often acting in cramped positions, unable to even use his face as one normally would. But here too he finds a way to work with the weakness, using his eyes and what little facial motion he has available to portray surprisingly complex emotions without words, a vital ability when the character is robbed of speech. This is a role that could be seen as Oscar bait, but Redmayne elevates it in to something genuinely special. His towering performance keeps us engaged with a character who is portrayed as having significant flaws, and he is a very deserving BAFTA winner.
Joining Redmayne as his dance partner for much of the film is Felicity Jones, a more than worthy pairing. The film is very much a film of parallel journeys, Jones’ of equal or perhaps greater importance within the film itself. Her acting challenge is that of portraying a woman at many points in her life, at each of which she is a very different person, and yet create a sense of continuity within the performance. She succeeds at both this and keeping the character relatable through some murky dramatic arcs that could very easily have pushed the viewer away. Watching the two act together is a great pleasure, and I look forward to seeing whatever it is they turn their considerable chops to next. Beyond the leads, the rest of the cast is impeccably chosen, Charlie Cox and David Thewlis proving particularly watchable in their supporting roles.
So, full marks for acting then, but what of the film as a whole? Fortunately, it’s a wonderful piece of work. The cinematography is beautiful, and while I feel like some of the color coding of scenes to get points across was a bit heavy handed, it never detracts too much from things, and does make points immediately apparent that I could have missed had they been conveyed more subtly. In a more accessible biopic like this it isn’t always necessary to hide all the puppet strings, and you are never in doubt as to where the film is ideologically or emotionally. A common complaint has been that the film glosses over the content of Hawking’s work, and while this is true, I feel that it is just because it is more about the man than the mathematics. Such explorations of Hawking’s work would most likely have killed the flow of the film, and in this particular case are best left to the Discovery Channel. As for the fundamental framework of the piece, the script is magnificent. The obvious points, like Hawking being reduced to a child in many ways by his illness, and the deeper points, such as comparing the impact of Hawking’s social awkwardness on his social interactions with that of his disease, are well made, but never belabored. The characters are wonderfully drawn, Hawking and his wife written as charming, yet ordinary, flawed people asked to cope with a burden that nobody should ever have to carry. The disease grinds on them, contorting them into vastly different people than they were on their meeting, leading up too the heartbreaking ending where potential and the often cruel reality are weighed up against each other exquisitely and very touchingly. The script itself may hem and haw around the idea of faith more than I care for, but this ending redeemed it for me. It is an absolute work of art.
Sure, this is a biopic. A biopic about a disabled physicist no less. But the team behind this have taken what could have been a crass grab at golden statues and crafted something genuinely touching and unique. The Theory Of Everything is well worth taking the time to see, and a serious contender for several categories when the Oscars come around on Sunday. It’s the best picture nominee this year with the greatest emotional resonance for me, and while other films on the list have it pipped artistically and technically, this is the one I’ll throw on again while I want something to tug at my cold, rotted heartstrings. Just watch the film already. I’m starting to well up here.