Thursday, March 05, 2015
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)
Time enough for love
Biopics are funny creatures--strange because they're familiar, and being familiar are often subject to feelings of disaffection, even contempt.
You might say the bar for the genre was set absurdly high almost from the start: in his 1927 epic Napoleon, Abel Gance inserted a snowball fight early in the Frenchman's childhood and escalated it into an overwhelming montage of blindingly edited shots (you want to duck and take cover from the barrage). He intercuts Napoleon weathering a violent squall in a tiny boat with footage of political factions violently quarreling in an assembly hall, the camera swinging back and forth in said hall (you worry for the craniums of the actors playing politicians) as if it were the vessel tossing in the storm. Unsatisfied with the size of his screen, Gance burst its boundaries sideways and threw up either three different images like a triptych, or a single image stretching from wall to wall, made of three projected parts.
The next year Carl Dreyer would reply with another equally extreme film, The Passion of Joan of Arc--elaborate, interconnected sets just crying out for a camera gliding on sinuous tracks, capturing all the action; instead Dreyer gives us a series of gigantic closeups, definitively proving that drama's ultimate backdrop (canvas, projection screen) has been and always will be the human face (an assertion Robert Bresson would do his best to disprove, particularly in his own 1962 film on Joan).
With Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946) John Ford would wield his homespun visual poetry to fashion for two historical figures--one the most beloved of presidents, the other the most feared of lawmen--a (factually dubious, visually ravishing) mantle of myth and legend.
In possibly the most breathtaking act of autobiographical onanism ever, Federico Fellini used his artist's block as base material to fashion the fabulous 8 1/2 (1963)--the title referring to the nine films the protagonist (a thinly disguised Fellini) has directed, including one collaboration (hence the 'half').
Ken Russell in Mahler (1974) used the composer's life as an excuse to stage (at relatively low cost) a series of outrageous surreal setpieces (Mahler screaming in a coffin--image borrowed from Dreyer of course--while his wife strips before a pack of appreciative Nazis), all set to the man's glorious music.
Scorsese turned his biopic of Jake La Motta into his one and only war film to date--in Raging Bull (1980) the fight sequences are shot, cut, and scored like pitched battles, animals howling in the background, flashbulbs exploding like batteries of artillery. Underneath all the sturm und drang is the unspoken thesis that the prodigious violence La Motta dishes out and receives in turn is a form of penance, to atone for some unforgivable sin.
Which brings us to James Marsh's The Theory of Everything (2014). Stephen Hawkings is a remarkable fellow; even more remarkable is his imagination, which describes black holes--collapsed stars so massive not even light can escape their gravitational grip--as spinning, seething, radiation-spitting fountainheads from which emerged the universe. Why then does this look sound feel so disappointingly like a standard-issue biopic? Why the focus on Hawking's love life at the expense of his professional? From all the goings-on you get the impression that he's not so much scientist as celebrity Casanova, rolling forth on his wheelchair to conquer coeds right and left, stunning women with the power of his intellect (actually that would have made for an interesting movie).
Eddie Redmayne does an excellent job depicting the ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) through which he has to convey the character's emotional nuances; he's poorly served however by a script that is too modest, too tactful, too polite to pull aside the curtains and and take a real look. Critics compare his performance to Daniel Day Lewis' Christy Brown, in My Left Foot (1989)--and once in a while you catch a glint of Lewis' sexual mischief in a corner of Redmayne's eye--but Redmayne isn't allowed to radiate that kind of reckless danger; I'm not sure anything in the picture is allowed to radiate any kind of danger. When at last Hawking and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones, also excellent despite everything) have their long-anticipated confrontation (skip to the next paragraph if you plan to watch!), it's gentle, staid, serene, ultimately bloodless (I've seen more drama during afternoon tea, when the host had once run out of sugar).
Which is a shame, because the source material (Jane's memoirs) does indicate a messy, complicated relationship; more interestingly, an earlier version suggests a messier even more complicated relationship--Jane had written the earlier in the bitter aftermath of their separation, written the second in the warm afterglow of their reconciliation. Telling both stories onscreen, letting the audience decide which is the more convincing narrative Rashomon style--now that might have been a real film.
First published in Businessworld, 2.26.15