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.

 



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What we sell are hidden truths. Our territory is the mind. Our merchandise is fear.

The Avengers 5.1: The Fear Merchants
The colour era doesn't get off to such a great start with The Fear Merchants, an Avengers episode content to provide unstinting averageness. About the most notable opinion you’re likely to come away with is that Patrick Cargill rocks some magnificent shades.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There’s still one man out here some place.

Sole Survivor (1970)
(SPOILERS) I’m one for whom Sole Survivor remained a half-remembered, muddled dream of ‘70s television viewing. I see (from this site) the BBC showed it both in 1979 and 1981 but, like many it seems, in my veiled memory it was a black and white picture, probably made in the 1950s and probably turning up on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2. Since no other picture readily fits that bill, and my movie apparition shares the salient plot points, I’ve had to conclude Sole Survivor is indeed the hitherto nameless picture; a TV movie first broadcast by the ABC network in 1970 (a more famous ABC Movie of the Week was Spielberg’s Duel). Survivor may turn out to be no more than a classic of the mind, but it’s nevertheless an effective little piece, one that could quite happily function on the stage and which features several strong performances and a signature last scene that accounts for its haunting reputation.

Directed by TV guy Paul Stanley and written by Guerdon Trueblood (The…

It’s all Bertie Wooster’s fault!

Jeeves and Wooster 3.4: Right Ho, Jeeves  (aka Bertie Takes Gussie's Place at Deverill Hall)
A classic set-up of crossed identities as Bertie pretends to be Gussie and Gussie pretends to be Bertie. The only failing is that the actor pretending to be Gussie isn’t a patch on the original actor pretending to be Gussie. Although, the actress pretending to be Madeline is significantly superior than her predecessor(s).

Do not run a job in a job.

Ocean’s 8 (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s nothing wrong with the gender-swapped property per se, any more than a reboot, remake or standard sequel exploiting an original’s commercial potential (read: milking it dry). As with those more common instances, however, unless it ekes out its own distinctive territory, gives itself a clear reason to be, it’s only ever going to be greeted with an air of cynicism (whatever the current fashion for proclaiming it valid simply because it's gender swapped may suggest to the contrary).  The Ocean's series was pretty cynical to start with, of course – Soderbergh wanted a sure-fire hit, the rest of the collected stars wanted the kudos of working with Soderbergh on a "classy" crowd pleaser, the whole concept of remaking the '60s movie was fairly lazy, and by the third one there was little reason to be other than smug self-satisfaction – so Ocean's 8 can’t be accused of letting any side down. It also gives itself distinctively – stereo…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…