Tuesday, January 13, 2015

TWO GREAT ACTING OUTINGS SPUR ‘THEORY OF EVERYTHING’

By Dominique Paul Noth


Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in a publicity still
for "The Theory of Everything."
Movie awards seem to have a great affinity for infirmities and the physically crippled and the ability of healthy actors to take on such roles. Honorable efforts have been rewarded, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” but sometimes it’s just a star willing to disguise natural allure into a physical limitation, such as Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda” (I just named two Oscar winners decades apart – feel free to create your own list, there are many examples.) 

Sometimes it’s needed recognition of how stirring when humans conquer physical setbacks.  But then comes the danger – honoring the infirm by honoring the actor who may not deserve it. That is a constant worry at awards time, since awards also translate into box office come-ons. It sure raced through my head January 11 when Eddie Redmayne won best actor at the Golden Globes for portraying Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”

But then I saw the film. Now my only question is why Felicity Jones didn’t win equally big as Jane Hawking.

Granted she had no crippling disease, except British stiff upper lip. But she actually has the bigger role in this human take on the accomplishments and the larger emotional journey, displaying Cambridge patience over things Americans would scream about, tapping reservoirs of feeling into a glance or a movement.  I have not seen all the nominated leading performances, but it is hard to imagine one better. In fact, in acting diligence and emotional appeal you will not find a better pairing.

I’m saying all this about a film that is quite restrained and intelligently handled by director James Marsh, but not quite a masterpiece except for the performances.  Scientific genius is hard to simplify for the screen, forcing equivalencies that don’t quite make it and straining screenwriter Andrew McCarten to no end of compression and combinations.  Human relationships are the easier cup of tea, yet this one is hardly a straight line and while cleverly distilled we sense the distilment where it should just flow over us. The quality of the acting creates the flow.

 “Theory” also explores the most significant real life imaginable on the contemporary screen, guiding us with an unconventional romantic thread and an optimistic determination that reflects its characters and leaves us staggered with their perseverance. There are also some unusual provocative technical elements including a surging emotional score by Danish composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Hawking, if you have been living inside a distant galaxy, is the cosmologist whose theories and constructs involving black holes, the universe and time have illuminated scientific thinking for 50 years – more remarkable by his example of the mind conquering physical deterioration.  The motor-neuron disease (ALS) hit him so hard in 1963 that physicians gave him two years to live, but he not only lived but thrived with a series of mathematical and geometrical conceits and theorems more amazing for the acts of memory and transcription involved as his faculties deteriorated to a cheek muscle to maneuver an artificial voice and a series of motorized wheelchairs to haul him from place to place – while also fathering three children and displaying an antic sense of humor.

Even as his body deteriorated, even as his fingers twisted into knuckles and his limbs went from contorted walks to wheelchairs, he and his wife ignored realities to tirelessly provide a semblance of family life until the constraints of his illness forced a parade of helpers and intruders into her strength of character.  Meanwhile, to oversimplify, both sought emotional attachments in other places without destroying the essential bond – something fictionalized a bit but still factual in the movie. 

There are themes of love and ideology at work here, from the place of God in the mutual universe to the place of Penthouse in Hawking’s sexual dynamics.  Director Marsh employs considerable skills in weaving the tale, always with great taste often oversimplified for the masses.

When Hawking conceives an insight into black holes through a hole in his sweater, this is a cinematic visualization exaggerating reality, much as saying that Einstein saw his theory of relativity in a swirling coffer cup. Well, he did but that was barely the start. Cinema needs such stuff as  cream circling  in coffee employed here again to help us understand the Hawking ideas  The need to compress and simplify sends the movie down several paths that injure  conviction, which should underlie our appreciation of what the actors didn’t do, even more than what they actually do so wonderfully.  There is no prolonged agony or extended dragging climb up and down stairs, just what the art of editing and acting can do in combination.

Let me go way out on a limb. I am predicting that Redmayne is about to explode as the new great figure of acting in the English language, likely to surpass Olivier in legend and Guinness in variety – and believe me I know what a daring statement that is to make about a largely unknown 33 year old who doesn’t even enjoy the female camp followers of his eminent colleague and friend, Benedict Cumberbatch, another fine actor many make the same prediction about.

But I have been watching Redmayne in his film outings where he combines considerable technical skill with a direct human sincerity mainly in ensemble forays, not showcases. I hope that continues if he doesn’t fall into celebrity adulation.  I didn’t much like the film “Les Miserables,” but his Marius was the best I’ve seen in both acting and singing. He almost stole “My Week With Marilyn” because he goes right after the material, worries it to death, but doesn’t show the worry so we just appreciate the diligence. There is an underlying honesty to his approach combined with enormous technical gifts.

Both are on display as Hawking, confusing many viewers into thinking he has lost some six inches in height and 40 pounds in weight. No such thing. When needed full visual span he has carefully studied how ALS has twisted and shrunk Hawking’s body but the actor understands the personality does not admit deformity but fights for normalcy. The intellect and humor is conveyed not just in director Marsh’s choice of angles around Hawking’s eyeglasses but in Redmayne’s understanding from the start how a twisted grin and particularly communicative eyebrows can convey both the alert mind and the flirtatious romance.

It is fine work matched totally by the methods and manners of Felicity Jones, whose growing love for Stephen and then affection for her choir director, yet her completely honorable British mannerisms and sense of domestic propriety, are a remarkable human orchestration. You emerge from this movie loving and admiring both.


Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood  



Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.