Every so often I have had the privilege of watching an acting performance so good that sufficient verbiage to describe it does not exist. If you saw Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” or Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” you know what I mean. And the of course there was Al Pacino’s remarkable performance as the blind Lt. Col. Frank Slade in “Scent of a Woman.”
Now I can add Eddie Redmayne to my elite list, and he may as well move some things around on his mantle to make a place for that coveted golden statue of Oscar. Redmayne turns in a performance for the ages in “The Theory of Everything,” an emotionally charged biopic of world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking. This outstanding film already has earned four Golden Globe nominations, and multiple Academy Award nominations are a sure bet.
Stephen William Hawking was born on Jan. 2, 1942, in Oxford, England, and he grew up near London, where his father was a doctor and research biologist. The film begins 1963 at Cambridge University, where Hawking is enrolled as a graduate student and where meets and falls in love with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a literature major. Hawking was pursuing his doctorate in theoretical physics that he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the motor neuron disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Hawking was just 21 years old at the time, and the doctors gave him just two years to live. Despite the grim prognosis from the medical establishment, Hawking married Jane at her insistence in 1965, and the following year he completed the work on his Ph.D.
Based upon Jane Hawking’s memoir titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” and directed by Academy Award-winner James Marsh (“Man on a Wire”), this outstanding film chronicles 50 years in Hawking’s life, and it shows how incredibly durable the human spirit can be. (He celebrated his 73rd birthday on Friday.) Watching this film is at once painful and uplifting because as the disease continues to ravage Hawking’s body, the emotional strength both he and Jane exhibit during their 26 years of marriage defies description.
As his illness progresses, Hawking is first forced to walk with two canes, but he’s ultimately confined to a wheelchair, and today he’s almost totally paralyzed with the exception of several fingers on one hand. But while ALS ate away at his body, Hawking’s amazing mind remained intact, and he continued his research on the theory of black holes in the universe. He and Jane also had three children and managed to live a somewhat normal, albeit strained, life until the burden finally became too much for Jane to bear, and they were divorced in 1991.
Four years later Hawking married his caregiver named Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), but this union also ended in divorce in 2006. However, the film doesn’t cover their split-up.
As if ALS weren’t enough to deal with, Hawking contracted pneumonia in 1985, and during his hospital stay he needed an emergency tracheotomy causing so much damage to his larynx and vocal cords that he was rendered speechless. Since that time he has communicated by using a keyboard attached to an electronic voice synthesizer.
In addition to being the saga of unfathomable courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the film also is an amazing love story in that Jane’s devotion to her husband was unflagging until she finally succumbed to the pressure of raising a family of three and providing Hawlking with the constant care he needed. She ultimately sought solace with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a choir director whom she married after divorcing Hawking.
You will not see any finer performances than those of Redmayne and Jones in this film. As the film progresses, Jones skillfully conveys the constantly increasing emotional toll that her husband’s illness takes on her. And much of the time she does this without speaking a word, simply allowing her facial expressions to convey her thoughts.
And adequate superlatives to describe Redmayne’s performance simply do not exist. The best way to say it is that he doesn’t play the part of Hawking; he becomes the man. From the early stage of his illness until his final immobile state in a wheelchair, Redmayne manages to capture all of Hawking’s mannerisms and facial idiosyncrasies. Look at a picture of the real Hawking and the actor in character; it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.
In the film’s production notes Redmayne explained what attracted him to the part and offered some insight into how he prepared for it.
“When I read the script I was astonished at what this man has experienced, and done, since 1963. It was one of the most inspiring things I’d ever read. Stephen Hawking is an icon of hope. But this movie is also about the human being behind the icon. When we meet him in this story, he is 21, and so vibrant and athletic. He goes on to live a full life with a twinkle in his eye and continues to do so. There are different sides to him: the wit, the brilliance, the stubbornness. I got the impression that he had a rock star personality.
“Jane discusses in her book how Stephen had incredibly expressive eyebrows. That was something I spent months in front of a mirror working on. When I met Stephen, I noticed how ‘yes’ is sort of a smile and ‘no’ is almost a grimace, yet they only manifest in a couple of the facial muscles for him, so I learned how to isolate those.”
“The Theory of Everything” is a remarkably effective film about a truly amazing man, and Redmayne’s performance is the finest one this year. It gets irrevocable10, and if you don’t add it to your must-see list, it’s your loss.