Every year at TIFF brings at least one or two biopics vying for Oscar attention, and this year is no different. The latest, James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything,” takes a look at the life of influential physicist Stephen Hawking, whose battle with ALS is as well-known as his brilliance. Eddie Redmayne stars as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his first wife Jane Wilde. Redmayne’s physical transformation is the kind of actorly stunt that gets attention nearly every year, so it’s easy to be wary – on Twitter, Mark Harris noted that he didn’t want it to be this year’s “Look how much weight McConaughey lost!”
But that doesn’t mean the performance stops at the stunt, and both Redmayne and Jones’s work is being lauded as heartbreaking. The film’s detractors (and a few of the supporters) note that anyone hoping that it’ll be a biopic that focuses on Hawking’s incredible theories as much as his struggle will be disappointed – it’s standard biopic tearjerker fare, albeit well-made by Marsh and company. But even if it is middle-of-the-road, that doesn’t make it ineffective or false (Hawking has called the film “broadly true”). If nothing else, it’ll be a breakthrough for Jones and Redmayne.
Kyle Buchanan, Vulture
Redmayne is a corker in the central role, and though the film has an Oscar-ready profile — Redmayne is playing a real person who dramatically suffered from a crippling disease, so the script might as well have come with an Academy Award nomination paper-clipped to the front page — he’ll be one of several strong competitors this year in a stacked Best Actor category. I hope, then, that the awards season spotlight shines on Jones, too: Near the end of the film, when Redmayne can move little but his eyes, Jones and her soul-stirring peepers match him beat for beat. Read more.
Justin Chang, Variety
Jane is bravely determined to help her husband fight his debilitating illness and enjoy however many years they have together, which happily turn out to be far more than expected (Hawking is now 72). Yet Marsh takes pains to convey the heavy burden of Stephen’s physical decline in every grueling particular, and Redmayne’s performance nails all the outward manifestations without unnecessary exaggeration: the contorted wrist, the drooping head, the stooped posture, the inward-pointing toes, the reliance on crutches and wheelchair, and the increasingly unintelligible speech that ultimately led Hawking to use a speech-generating device. Redmayne palpably conveys the man’s frustration and humiliation at each fresh deprivation, from his inability to transfer food from plate to mouth to his difficulty holding and playing with his children (Stephen and Jane have three kids, the disease having mercifully not interfered with every key bodily function). Read more.
Gregory Ellwood, HitFix
Many moviegoers may think they already know a good deal about Hawking’s achievements, but they would do themselves a disservice to miss out on Redmayne’s almost perfect performance. Both he and Marsh provide subtle hints of Hawking’s impending condition before his diagnosis that not everyone will catch. As each stage takes away more and more of Hawking’s abilities Redmayne carefully contorts his body and increasingly takes the form of Hawking you would easily recognize in silhouette. By the end of the film he has an almost uncanny resemblance to the modern day Hawking who is still working hard today at the age of 72. But let’s remember, Hawking’s movement is limited to pushing buttons on a speaking machine and moving his eyebrows when signaling something in a conversation. There is one particularly powerful scene in Hawking’s later years where he cries while the rest of his body barely moves (and we mean barely). It’s a moment that will haunt you long after you leave the theater. Read more.
Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter
It’s to Marsh and his collaborators’ credit that the film meets those challenges as well as it does. The science bit gets somewhat slighting treatment, but in truth it’s almost impossible stuff to summarize in the first place, and the use of some stylized visuals of an eye in extreme close up and a few visual effects do well enough to stand for Hawking’s big inspiration about black holes and the origins of the universe. In fact, eyes make for a compelling leitmotiv throughout, especially when Hawking can only communicate with glances and blinks. The texture of academic life is beautifully evoked, and it says a lot for the movie that arguably its most moving moment is the scene where Hawking passes the oral exam (or viva) for his Ph.D. Read more.
Tim Grierson, ScreenDaily
As the film reaches its final moments, Marsh does allow for a more sweeping profundity that’s a little too crowd-pleasing and bland. There’s no question that this is a top-notch production from a technical standpoint: Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography is diamond-sharp, Johann Johannsson’s score is sublime, and hair and makeup designer Jan Sewell does beautiful work creating prosthetics to help transform Redmayne into the renowned physicist. But “The Theory Of Everything’s” classiness can sometimes seem too rigid for its own good, aiming for a studied elegance that feels mannered in places. Nevertheless, what one is ultimately left with is a sense of the richness of a complex marriage. Read more.
Nikola Grozdanovic, The Playlist
James Marsh comes into this project with a great track record in bold documentary filmmaking (“Man on Wire” and “Project Nim,”) so it’s disappointing that ‘Theory’ is so standard. In terms of structure, pace, and development, the film hews to familiar ebbs and flows of storytelling convention. But even the most cynical and hard-to-please viewers will be hard-pressed to deny some of the film’s finer qualities. We’re already mentioned Delhomme’s lighting, but it bears repeating ad infinitum. The interior shots of the Hawking household, the colorful array of fireworks on a starry night, the light show in Bordeaux, the surgical wintriness of the hospitals: Delhomme gives his all in every shot. Read more.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
The story builds to a celebratory finale that anyone remotely familiar with Hawking’s perseverance would expect, but only truly acknowledges the cosmic nature of his ideas in the closing credits. No matter how much “The Theory of Everything” showcases the incredible process through which Hawking maintains a connection to the rest of the world, it falls short of burrowing inside his head. Read more.
Matt Patches, IGN
“Theory of Everything” expands past “Beautiful Mind”-lite when Stephen and Jane finally tie the knot. The behind-closed-doors drama gets Marsh past visualizing a Wikipedia entry. By sticking with her brainy significant other, Jane sacrifices her life to become a wife, a mother, and a caretaker. Doctors tell Stephen he has two years to live. It’s Jane who won’t take the answer. Lifting her now-crippled husband into wheelchairs, spoon-feeding him peas, running up and down stairs to simultaneously assist an immobile Stephen and their newborns, Jones exerts nearly as much energy as it takes Redmayne maintain his Hawking pose. Marsh’s intimate direction keeps a camera nuzzled against Jones’s face, where she allows subtle-yet-profound change to be detected. Read more.
Catherine Shoard, The Guardian
It stands or falls, of course, on its central performance. But Redmayne towers: this is an astonishing, genuinely visceral performance which bears comparison with Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.” His Hawking starts askew – the glasses, maybe the shoulders a touch – and over the course of two hours contorts and buckles into a figure at once instantly familiar and fresh. This is more than just skilful impersonation – it’s inhabitation. To look on as his face and body distort is to feel, yourself, discomforted, even queasy. Read more.