September 9, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “The Theory of Everything”


THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (Focus/Universal)Opens November 7  – Worth A Ticket

There’s a benefit but also a burden to being clear-cut “Oscar bait.”  At this point we all know the kinds of movies the Academy looks upon with favor:  serious biographies, period pieces, leading actors who contort themselves in one way or another, etc.  When those of us who aren’t Academy voters see one of those vehicles coming, we may wince a little, thinking we can already imagine all we need to know about it.  There can be great pleasure to be had from an expertly-tooled luxury vehicle, though, and James Marsh’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and will almost surely be omnipresent in Oscar conversations over the next several months, is a stirringly intelligent and moving example of the form.

The subject is Stephen Hawking (played in the film by Eddie Redmayne), the world’s most famous genius since Albert Einstein, and possessed of a personal story almost as miraculous as his mind.  When he was still in his 20s and a student at Cambridge, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (one form of which is famous as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”) and told he had 2 years to live.  That was more than 50 years ago, and Hawking hasn’t let his illness stand in the way of just about anything.  Theory doesn’t spend much time on Hawking’s science (although Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is concrete and effective when it does tackle some of his general accomplishments, and their spiritual implications as well), and instead concerns itself with his life, and in particular his marriage.

Hawking met Jane (Felicity Jones) when they were both at university, and they had just started to become seriously involved when he was diagnosed.  To the surprise of many, including Hawking’s family, Jane stuck with him, and her devotion made permitted much of his life to be possible during the years before “A Short History of Time” made him a wealthy pop culture fixture.  The script takes its time developing the relationship between Stephen and Jane before lowering the boom of his illness, and all that pays off throughout the rest of the film, as we can believe how closely these two are tied to one another.  To its credit, the film also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties in their marriage that eventually pushed them apart.

The Theory of Everything is a relatively traditional film biography in form, proceeding in chronological order and without any major stylistic flourishes. Marsh began as a documentarian (he won the Oscar for Man On Wire), and he respects facts and accuracy.  It succeeds because it has a fascinating story to tell and is scrupulous in the telling–and, of course, due to the amazing performances at its center.

Eddie Redmayne seemed like he might be a skilled but forgettable actor in My Week With Marilyn, Les Miserables, and the TV miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, none of which could prepare one for his work as Stephen Hawking.  It’s not just the brilliant physical work with which this healthy young actor convincingly recreates Hawking’s appearance and movements, but his ability to transcend the “stunt” aspect and capture Hawking’s complex humanity, and a personality that doesn’t always make things easy for those around him.  It’s easy to underrate Jones by comparison, since her only physical transformation is some middle-aged make-up and wigs late in the story, but as Stephen’s ability to communicate becomes more difficult, Jones has to convey more than her share of the interaction between them to the audience, while seeming to be entirely naturalistic.  She does all this without losing sight of Jane’s own yearnings, both professional and personal.  The film also boasts the high-class supporting ensemble that we take for granted in British cinema, with David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney and Charlie Cox among those making appearances.

Theory is a superbly crafted work, with burnished photography by Benoit Delhomme that keeps what could easily have been static situations visually appealing, and a score by Johann Johannsson that evokes science and Hawking’s central concept of time.  The film’s major strength, though, is being an absorbing, often surprising narrative about a life we thought we already knew.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."