The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything is an apt title for James Marsh’s glossy biopic about the relationship between world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It’s a film that tries to be everything—an all-encompassing life story of Hawking, an exploration of his genius, a chronicle of his life-long battle against ALS, but most importantly, an ode to his complicated relationship with Jane. Bolstered by tremendous performances from Redmayne and Jones, The Theory of Everything could have been the definitive take on one of the most significant individuals of the 20th century. However, their dedicated work is undone by Marsh’s pedestrian direction and Anthony McCarten’s bland paint-by-numbers screenplay that is neither engrossing nor invigorating.
Although we do see Hawking publish A Brief History of Time and receive standing ovations throughout the course of the film, there’s no insight into what he actually accomplished that makes him so revered. In fact, the film’s only real success is in its portrayal of ALS being a horrible, horrible disease. It accomplishes this via a copious number of scenes in which Redmayne artfully demonstrates Hawking’s struggle to move and speak. In spending so much time on Redmayne showboating (exceedingly good showboating, mind you), Marsh and McCarten marginalize Jane, the film’s most interesting character, to what is essentially the long-suffering wife trope. And that’s a grand shame. It’s to Jones credit that she elevates the character into a fully-realized individual deserving of as much praise as her husband. Perhaps the only surprising aspect of The Theory of Everything is that it wasn’t distributed by The Weinstein Company.*
The Imitation Game
Perhaps there’s a reason why Weinstein chose not to produce and distribute The Theory of Everything—he was too busy bringing the season’s other big genius mathematician biopic, The Imitation Game, to the big screen. Although Morten Tyldum’s drama suffers from just as many “prestige biopic” formalisms as The Theory of Everything, it’s far more accomplished as a piece of entertainment. Tyldum’s film, which was adapted from Graham Moore’s Hollywood Black List-topping script, centers on the tragic life of British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) who saved millions of lives during World War 2 with his code-breaking work but was persecuted by the government in the 1950s for being a homosexual.
Largely set during the height of World War 2, The Imitation Game opens with Turing joining the famed Hut 8 team at Bletchley Circle, the headquarters of Britain’s code-breaking operations, to help break the Nazis’ impenetrable Enigma code. Although his genius is undeniable, his arrogant and smug attitude makes him a pariah among his male colleagues (Charles Dance, Mark Strong and Matthew Goode). Only Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a female colleague whom he hires, warms up to him. Unlike other prestige biopics about mathematicians, Tyldum and Moore build The Imitation Game as a wartime thriller in which Turing, Joan and the rest of the team have a limited number of hours each day to break the Enigma code before it resets again the next morning. Each lost day is equal to a 100 more British lives being lost, and as the body count increases, so does the pressure on Turing and his team. The filmmakers’ sleek storytelling is aided by Alexandre Desplat’s pulsing Philip Glass-ian score and by Cumberbatch’s stirring performance as the enigmatic, emotionally tortured Turing. His work ensures that that despite the film’s biopic constraints, there’s never a dull moment on screen.
Running time: 123 minutes
Companies: Focus Features
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
THE IMITATION GAME
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenwriter: Graham Moore
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
Producer: Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman
Running time: 114 minutes
Companies: The Weinstein Company
Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking
The Theory of Everything is a textbook example of the much maligned term “Oscar-bait.” Some have argued that the term is only used by cynics to discredit films that they don’t like. This is likely true but there are a lot of very good films (that I have liked) that check off many boxes on the Oscar bait checklist. 12 Years a Slave is a good example. The King’s Speech is another. Even The Imitation Game, which I review on this very page, qualifies. But The Theory of Everything is the only film on this page that I’ll apply the term to. This is a film that hits so many of the beats that are requisites for Oscar-baiting films that it’s simply impossible to not be cynical about it. It’s especially evident during sequences like one where Redmayne writhers trying to climb a staircase while still smiling like an adorable puppy. Or another in which he tragically tries to eat a pea from his plate. Or even another in which he looks to the heavens and smiles. It’s hagiography. It’s shameless. It’s manipulative. It borders on parody. Rant over.