The Theory of Everything
Special to The History Place
Eddie Redmayne first caught my attention eight years ago, when he played the weak and vulnerable son of “Mother” in The Good Shepherd, which I reviewed in this space. Like many sons of bigger-than-life fathers, Redmayne’s character quivered in the shadow of the dad who helped establish the CIA. Trying desperately to please the old man, he became an agent, only to inadvertently reveal the top secret plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.
In The Theory of Everything, Redmayne’s mastery of the damaged persona, struggling to survive, achieves its zenith. His portrayal of the crippled genius Stephen Hawking well deserved the Oscar® he snatched from such other luminaries as Benedict Cumberbatch, whose tour de force as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game I lauded, again in this space, just a few weeks ago. As good as Cumberbatch was, likewise portraying a badly flawed British genius, Redmayne deserved to walk away with the Best Actor accolade.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s Disease – is described by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders as “invariably fatal.” And yet, Stephen Hawking turned 73 in January. Though he communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech generator, he’s been twice married and has fathered three kids. He also has revolutionized physics and cosmology.
Credibly depicting him was no small challenge and Redmayne’s success is symbolized by my inability, by the end of the film, to recall precisely what the real Hawking actually looks like. Makeup, no doubt, can claim some of the credit. But Redmayne is Hawking, the way Tom Hanks was Forrest Gump. You simply forget that you are watching a great actor at work and embrace the reality of his character at face value.
Sadly, I can’t be as complimentary of the film itself. The pace is often sluggish. And – granted, this is a personal predilection – I would have preferred more about the man’s professional career and less dwelling on his relationship with his first wife. His bestselling A Brief History of Time – a record-breaking 237 weeks on the London Times list – gets maybe five whole minutes of the movie’s attention.
I guess I was hoping for a more cerebral odyssey. After all, Hawking’s theories are mind boggling. A Brief History of Time’s disquisitions on black holes and galaxies and time warps and the like might be viewed to be as mythical and mystical as the Old Testament. You look into a clear night sky and, if you are not in the middle of an urban area, you see the stars twinkling up there in the thousands. With binoculars or a telescope you can see the craters of our moon, the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s satellites. Beyond them, who knows?
Well, Hawking has assured us that he does. But when I worked through his Brief History, a part of my mind couldn’t shake the sense that he was often writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. How atheists can accept his breathtaking visions of the universe and dismiss the possibility of an Intelligent Designer behind the cosmic curtain is to me the biggest mystery.
Friends who have seen the 2013 Hawking documentary tell me that’s where I need to look for the scientist inside the gnome-like figure in the electric wheelchair. And perhaps I will track that film down on Netflix someday soon.
Meanwhile, let me repeat that, among an especially strong field of contenders for best thespian of the silver screen this year, Redmayne won by a length or two. You ought to see this movie just to observe another true genius at work.
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material.
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Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).