Skip to main content

The brain. What about the brain?

The Theory of Everything
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The latest awards-bait biopic is considerably more involving than the tepid The Intimidation Game, although it shares with it an apparent determination not to depict genius at work. The Theory of Everything is rigorous in its desire to present an upbeat story (just listen to that – actually very good, but still, it’s far from subtle – score). It’s as unpolished in its plotting as it is lustrous in its cinematography. Mostly, though, this is an okay “triumph over adversity’ film, fairly typical of its type, but anchored by outstanding performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.


I didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking’s cosmological theories before seeing Theory. I didn’t have much interest either; the little that had filtered in seemed to reference concepts I found far more accessible in your average science fiction tale. Having seen Theory, which will probably reach a wider audience than A Brief History of Time (which has probably been read by a miniscule proportion of those who bought it), I can’t say my interest has been piqued. This is an area in which the also-Best Picture Oscar-nominated The Intimidation Game also flobbles about unconvincingly. 


Screenwriter Antony McCarten fails to deliver the science behind Hawking’s ideas, not just in terms of why his ideas made such an impression within the scientific establishment but also in terms of their practical explanation. After all, Hawking wrote that book for scientific luddites; you’d have thought Theory could at least try to embrace that spirit (on the other hand, as noted, people are actually watching the picture). One might come away with the impression that Hawking is a great because he is populist, and because of his memorable voice software. Which is probably what one went into the film thinking.


The best we get is a lecture where one peer walks out of Hawking’s (Redmayne) rumination on how black holes aren’t entirely black while a Russian proclaims him a dear little genius (he was unable to predict a psychotic robot with human eyes lurking deep within such galactic bodies, however). Oh, and Hawking’s mate Brian (not real, but not not-real in the A Beautiful Mind best mate sense) not-really explaining his theory in a pub with beer foam (you can all-but see the wheels turning in the minds of director and writer; that’s how we explain Hawking to masses! Thirty seconds in a pub!) There’s also swirling cream in coffee and fireworks.


The Hawking “view” and leaps that any genius in his or her right mind must make in order to attain the mantle of genius are relayed in a sufficiently pretty fashion (the film is exclusively very pretty, and will do wonders for Cambridge University applications, not that it needs any encouragement, of course), from blurring dancers at a May Ball to a blurring fire seen through the gauze of a pullover. But they’re entirely pedestrian visions of vision (there’s a persuasive sense of the history of great academicians at Cambridge, and David Thewlis is great as Hawking’s benevolent tutor, but that’s as far as it goes). Jane (Jones) even rehearses hubby’s ideas, bored and well versed, to future spouse Jonathan (Charlie Cox), and that’s it. It’s not really that important, I guess, not next to everything else that didn’t make him famous.


I also wonder if getting hung up on the science versus God debate is a little tiresome by this point, and a bit of a blind alley. Post-Dawkins, how about, for a change, trying to engage positively with the theory, rather than getting mired in polar viewpoints? Belief may have fed directly into the relationship between Jane and Stephen, but it airing it this way undercuts the ideas of the man. Indeed, it serves to add to the sense that Hawkins notions aren’t really all that.


It’s the sort of picture, you know the ones, (struggle against adversity + scientific genius = a shower of awards nominations), that’s crying out for a more offbeat and daring approach. Particularly in this case, dealing as it is with the cosmic and quantum range(s) of things. Terrence Malick might never get involved with something so overtly atheistic (although, coming from Hawking’s wife’s memoir, there’s a liberal dose of God in there), but jumps from intimate to universal are really lacking; the picture needs such balance, so it doesn’t entirely become a story about Hawking being loved and respected for (or despite) having motor neuron disease. Which is, basically, what it is.


That said, Theory is compelling in respect of the relationship between Hawking and Jane. I was most impressed that it isn’t just a film about Hawking, side-lining the true strength behind the wheeled throne (this was before I saw the end credits and realised why). Jane’s role and the weight thrust upon her in raising a family of three (another aspect I was oblivious to; the picture makes a point of establishing Stephen’s fully-working cockmanship, although it stops short of showing him visit Stringfellows and instead settles for a browse through Penthouse), along with a husband who needed to be constantly cared for, solo, certainly needed due recognition.


There isn’t much care spent finessing the introduction of elements (incoming Daredevil Charlie Cox as choirmaster and eventual second husband Jonathan Jones arrives on the scene once we’re shown the burden on Jane) but the performers repeatedly strive for nuance where the writing is perfunctory. When Hawking leaves Jane for sparky redhead nurse Elaine (Maxine Peak, deliciously commanding; probably an understatement in respect of the real Elaine’s alleged abusive behaviour), leaving her free to marry Jonathan, there’s a feeling that Marsh could have measured the tone a bit better. Although, the resulting tone is one where everything turns out fine for everyone concerned, which is exactly the aim, I suspect. But it means it all seems a bit schematic. Jane gets her man in the end, Stephen gets adulation (but not, ultimately, the girl), and so it’s all something to feel great about.


Likewise, Marsh and McCarten can’t resist playing up for dramatic purposes (Hawking has a seizure at the opera, so aren’t the surroundings gorgeous?) If it had been up to those damn Swiss, Hawking would be dead! The scene meeting the Queen is a bit of a meal of a moment, although it sat least serves to show how the two of them reconciled. Actually unnecessary is the scene where Stephen takes up her (an attendee at a lecture) pen and walks. In his mind, of course. It’s overkill, in a film that has trodden a fairly dependable line in not over stating its characters. The final brief history of Stephen Hawking in reverse is a further inevitability and sign of an uninventive biopic (but aren’t they most?) that probably thought it was full of great ideas.


Where the Worzel Down Under scribe scores, however, is with Stephen’s sense of humour, and humour in general. Redmayne fully inhabits Hawking’s deterioration, despair, then determination and his roving eye. His mischievousness is also shown to be unfair (announcing his blame in front of the kids and so distracting from a serious conversation; mum’s to blame again). Illustrative is how he gives Jane a lighter moment of possible admission that there’s room for God in the universe, only to pick the next beat to announce he’s taking off with Elaine. Elsewhere, he’s deposited in the arms of statue of Queen Victoria by Brian (Harry Lloyd, very good as his best chum), and races around the house with a bag over his head commanding, “Exterminate!


Daniel Day Lewis may have used up all the wheelchair Oscars, and co-nominee Bendict Cumberbath may have got in there first in Hawking, but Redmayne’s performance is flawless; sad, funny, moving. You forget you’re not watching the man himself. Jones is right with him beat-for-beat, and has also been justly nominated. It also credits the makers that they exercised restraint with the make-up (they didn’t necessarily elsewhere). No one’s convincing anyone that a bit of grey is going to make Jones look older than a slip of a girl, so having Countdown in the background helps to one get one's bearings.


The ins and outs of who deserves more sympathy for the disintegration of their marriage are sidestepped (as it plays out, Jane is tacitly permitted to wander while Stephen deals a crueller blow). There’s always a problem becoming too fixated on the facts with real figures, at the expense of whether the tale being told is told well. This is a tale told reasonably, but that is chiefly so because of Jones and Redmayne raising the material. It raises the question of whether there’s any point making biopics when they tend to be run-of-the-mill. Rarely a great one comes along, but that’s usually because it plays fast and loose with facts and form (Amadeus).  Certainly, there seems to be little point – in the vast majority of cases – rehearsing such material during the lifetime of its protagonist.


So, The Theory of Everything is a triumph. You can tell it is, because of all the “This is where you well up” moments delivered via Jóhan Jóhannsson’s tear-jerking score (good job, Jóhan!) Never mind the little details. Such as, “What was it that made you so brilliant again, Stephen?” This miraculous tale (there you go, it’s God at work!) knows how to milk its audience. It may not be one I’m going to remember for its content (was there even potential for a Hawking biopic in there; about his theories, that is?), but its performances will linger.

 



Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?