30 November 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything

Genre: Drama (Biopic)

It's not often that I see a promising film about a brilliantly interesting person become a weak treatise on a social issue still ahead of its time. For this — and almost only this — character, The Theory of Everything, the new film by documentary director James Marsh, is a piece worth seeing.

The film charts a rather linear biography, nothing new in terms of dramatic structure or even dramatic content, the protagonist struggling slowly with a physical decline as blossoming slowly on a mental incline all the while vying his generally swelling interests against those of his nearest and dearest — it's a perfect idea of genius as constructed and explored already (to varying degrees of success) by such films as The Aviator (Scorcese, 2004), Frida (Taymor, 2002), Jobs (Stern, 2013), and most relevantly here A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2002) — and, while films like Frida and The Aviator have capably broken their material confines in order to relate and resonate the ineffable inherent in their stories — Taymor, for instance, by wondrous tableaux vivants and Scorcese, for instance, by hypercolor and sequential collages — films like Jobs and this new feature flop around ineffectively within the bounds of the material world within which they exist, consequently never demonstrating in so many frames the advancing genius that they nevertheless attest to portray. Take for example here an early scene, in which the young Hawking first perceives inspiration in the swirl of milk in his train-served coffee. There, the mechanism is, honestly, entirely boring; we the audience never feel as though we're leaving the quotidian meanness of the train on a pathway to delightful, groundbreaking work in the physics. Rather, we stick, bereft of the ineffable, in the simple porcelain pool outside our character's mind, still thus impermeable to us despite Mr. Redmayne's valiant attempts to communicate with us. Other instances of similar tenor fleck the arc of the plot of this film, the worst of which instances chars the serious romantic entanglements of the films' characters with almost flippant crescendo akin to that "flavoring" such modern melodramas as Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008) and The Notebook (Cassavetes, 2004) and the best of which instances (i.e., a simple fireplace shot through a sweater) only approximates the useful perceptual abstractions successful elsewhere. Overall, in this way, the film leaves more on the table than it ever should have and makes banal an otherwise drastically interesting story of a man who has contributed significant insights to the scientific canon.

Additionally, the film suffers from a split interest, a burden beset by the screenplay and unresolved by the director. While it proclaims throughout that it is indeed a biopic of the now standard form, it also bakes in the background a potentially powerful philosophical debate on a modern issue so new to popular discourse in cinema, that it has yet really to be discussed in such a mainstream vehicle: polyamory. Though it never outright addresses this lurker behind the scenes, the film constructs a narrative such that all roads lead to Rome (so to speak); the trials and questions in their romantic entanglements, previously referenced here, present the central characters, Stephen Hawking and Jane Hawking (née Wild), as multifaceted people both in need of support so ordinarily human that it's almost dull and yet in straits of being only partially able to provide that support to one another themselves alone. Their status, in short, is the classic recipe for a polyamor's solution to life: If one cannot for whatever reason find complete fulfillment in the promise of a single mate — and, perhaps, it would be nigh impossible for anyone to expect to do so, she thinks —  then it is only meet for one to find complete fulfillment in a multiplicity of partners, only by a little stretch of imagination different in terms from the friends that conventionally monogamous couples retain or even newly make for reasons of social and emotional intimacy. Yet, because the film leaves this would-be marvel on the back-burner in refusing to court perspectives other than the ruling shaming of conventional society at large, this secondary interest of the film withers and then dies, leaving a corpse of a beauty looming as a burning pall in the background — and the black smoke only distracts and detracts.

Now, at the top of this review I said that this disenfranchised treatise is weakly almost the singular redeeming feature of this otherwise stiff as a board biography. So, it would be remiss for me to close this review without giving due mention to Mr. Redmayne, who reproves why he is a Tony-Award winner in this film. His performance of Hawking is limited by definition, but manages to turn these limitations into assets as he finds confidence within the constrictures of his physical form. What is important and demonstrates this fact is that he never lets the signals of his failing body, however heavy-handedly they were photographed by the other filmmakers, be the entirety of his condition nor even the focus of his action; instead, they are only punctuations of the major story that his body is telling, even at its later stages. While this performance is certainly not at the maximum it could have achieved, it is still one shining part of this work — and, likely, the only major part that will receive recognition from awarding bodies at the year's end.

Grade: C-, stale.