Movie a Day Blog believes the most overrated and most over-nominated Academy Awards contending film is THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014, Theatrical), James Marsh’s unusual but ultimately unsatisfying domestic drama about the physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane.
This is not to besmirch at all the reputation and very deserved nomination of Felicity Jones as Best Actress for her portrayal of the loyal but ultimately wronged spouse. She brings a dignity and clarity to her character and her dilemma of caring for a man physically degenerating before her eyes.
Every few years brings a new affliction movie to Academy Award season. I hate to be crass, but Hollywood knows that movies about overcoming disabilities physical (MY LEFT FOOT, 1989) or mental (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) will score strongly with the older, more sentimental audiences and Oscar voters.
This time it’s Hawking’s turn in the sympathy barrel, although the film is based on Jane’s book about her life with the famous scientist, and is told from her perspective. Hawking suffers from an early-onset, slow-developing form of ALS, also known as motor neuron disease, that has left his mind as brilliant as ever, but with a body that has gradually become paralyzed, requiring a computer simulated voice to even speak.
Hawking lent his cooperation to the production, along with his voice and awards, but there is a central problem in dramatizing a character with his affliction: it renders him unable to communicate physically, which traps the actor Eddie Redmayne in essentially one or two positions for most of THEORY OF EVERYTHING.
The last two thirds of the picture feature him with essentially the same expression locked on his face, a kind of crooked grin that does not seem revealing of his inner emotions. Whatever Redmayne, a solid young actor, was trying to communicate with his eyes alone eluded me, in contrast to a film such as THE SEA INSIDE (2004) and Javier Bardem’s emotionally naked performance.
The hole in the movie created by Hawking’s unchanging premise is compensated by the development of Jane by Jones, one of the more talented young actresses working today. I especially enjoyed her performance in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (2013), in which she played the young lover of the older Charles Dickens.
Maybe sometime she’ll escape the shadow of famous men in the characters she plays, but Jones in THEORY OF EVERYTHING is a wonder to behold: firm, with a strong personality and sensibility of her own, and willing to recognize genius in the man with whom she falls in love. Her admirable stoicism as Hawking physically deteriorates is not just British stiff upper lip, but love manifested through care and support of that genius.
Hawking ends up falling in love with the nurse who accompanies him on his travels, and Jones has an affair of her own that leads initially to bitterness and regret, because it’s with a choir director who is also one of Hawking’s closest companions. Eventually everything gets sorted out the way it should, and people seem to end up with whom they’re best suited, leaving THEORY OF EVERYTHING on a surprisingly placid note.
There’s nothing wrong with this movie, but there’s nothing great about it either, other than Jones’ performance. I found the script that Andrew McCarten spent a decade trying to get made little more than pedestrian melodrama, and not at all deserving of a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. The direction by James Marsh was also serviceable and not much else.
I’m happy that my old friends Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner got a Best Picture nomination, since their company Working Title continues to make higher-class and more intelligent films than many of their British counterparts. But THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is little more than a predictable affliction movie tarted up as a serious Oscar contender. I’m not buying it.