The Theory of Everything (2014) – Review

The Theory of Everything

Directed by James Marsh, UK, 2014

“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

Stephen Hawking, 2004

As any extraordinary person, Stephen Hawking is many things.  He is one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century.  He the lighthearted ambassador of the scientific community.  He is an inspirational figure for anyone facing a challenge in their lives.

Any film about Hawking’s life has an added degree of difficulty.  First, Dr. Hawking is still with us, so any film about his life has to receive his approval.  Second, he’s been living with a rare, slow progressing form of ALS for over fifty years.  Any film about his life has to convincingly show the progression of his illness and his successes in overcoming its limitations.  Since movies aren’t shot chronologically, an actor has to be able to switch back and forth between different stages of Hawking’s life on an almost daily basis.  Finally, he’s as universally admired as any public figure can possibly be – so any weakness in the performance would be heavily criticized.

Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne is up to the challenge.  He presents the pre-illness Hawking as an active, charming, slightly awkward college student at the beginning of the film – and that’s the easy part.  As Hawking’s disease progresses in the story, Redmayne rises to the challenge of imitating Hawking’s mannerisms and expressiveness.  What results is a convincing portrait of a man that is honest and connects with the audience at a level equal to that of the real Hawking.

Felicity Jones also has a challenging role to play as Hawking’s first wife and now close friend Jane Wilde Hawking.  Hers is a more traditional role, but since Wilde Hawking wrote the source material for the movie, it also has a high degree of difficulty.  It would be easy for any actor to lean on the source material and go through the motions, but Jones goes a step beyond that, and like Redmayne, does a great job connecting with the audience.

The two lead performers carry this film, which is otherwise a rather conventional biopic.  It doesn’t challenge the traditional boundaries of storytelling in the genre, but it doesn’t need to be particularly innovative to tell its story.  Overall, it’s an interesting and thorough look at the life of an extraordinary man, and that’s all it needs to be.

You might like the Theory of Everything if: You are interested in learning more about the life of Stephen Hawking and appreciate well-crafted performances.

You might not like the Theory of Everything if: Traditional biopics put you to sleep.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Iron Lady (2011)

The Iron Lady

Directed by Phylidia Lloyd, U.K., 2011

With a heavy dose of Meryl Streep coming this year, starting with this weekend’s “The Giver,” it is as fitting a time as any to look back on her most recent Oscar winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady.

I saw The Iron Lady for the first time this week and was amazed by Streep’s performance.  She’s on screen almost the entire film, which in itself is an exercise in endurance.  She only gets a break for a few flashbacks scenes (in which a young Thatcher is played by Alexandra Roach).  She’s as perfect as the vulnerable, dying Thatcher as she is the authoritative politician.  She also skillfully makes the vulnerable Thatcher authoritative and makes the authoritative Thatcher vulnerable.

If the rest of the film measured up to Streep’s performance, we would be discussing a political biopic in the realm of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gandhi (1982), and Lincoln (2012).  It doesn’t, so we aren’t.

The other actors in the film give yeoman’s performances, but when you’re acting opposite a legend on top of her game you have to raise yours as well.  The biggest issue with the film, however, isn’t the disparity in the quality of the performances, but the structural problems.  Is it a movie about Thatcher’s rise to power? Or is it a movie about a once powerful woman dealing with the affects of aging?

The film desperately wishes to be the latter.  The scenes with Streep as the older Thatcher show a terrified woman, filled with more regret and anger from her past than any joy in her accomplishments.  The central conflict in the film has little to do with Thatcher’s past, but rather her battle within her self to accept her husband’s death.

Unfortunately this only gives us about forty five minutes of a two hour movie.  The rest of the movie plays like a rote recitation of Thatcher’s career.  Thatcher was arguably the most decisive figure in 20th Century British history.  For example, her 2013 death caused public mourning on the one hand and raucous celebrations on the other.  As an American born during the height of Thatcher’s power, I didn’t know much about why she provoked such disparate and passionate reactions before I saw the film. After seeing it I’m still not entirely sure why she’s so loved and so hated.

The flashbacks are effective in complementing the characterization of Thatcher as an old woman (that’s mostly Streep’s work).  But if this film were about an average political figure they wouldn’t even need to be there.  What we’re left with is a film that is far more effective as testament to the supreme talent of Meryl Streep than it is a complete portrait of the woman she’s portraying.

You might like The Iron Lady if: You love watching Meryl Streep at her best.

You might not like The Iron Lady if: You want to learn more about Margaret Thatcher.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe