REVIEW: “The Theory of Everything”


Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has often found himself the object of a rather unusual fascination from the entertainment industry. Beyond the number of documentaries made about his life, he also appeared in everything from “Star Trek” to “The Simpsons”. But surprisingly there hasn’t been a biographical feature length drama until James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything”. The film offers a unique romantic perspective by putting its main focus on the relationship between Stephen and his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking.

The film is based on Jane Hawking’s book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, an updated version of her previous released biography. The story begins in 1963 when a young cosmology student named Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meets a literature student named Jane (Felicity Jones) at a Cambridge University party. The two are clearly opposites but there is an undeniable attraction between them. There relationship grows as Stephen excels in his studies of science and mathematics. He is particularly encouraged by his professor (David Thewlis) who sees the amazing potential in Stephen’s intelligence and ideas.


Redmayne and Jones have a surprisingly good chemistry which makes the relationship between their characters easy to buy into and digest. Stephen approaches Jane much like he does everything – systematically and very matter of fact. But she offers the perfect personality and balance to the unorthodox Stephen. Watching the relationship grow and flourish is the film’s most compelling dramatic component. But their affection is almost derailed after Stephen learns he has motor neuron disease. He is given two years to live and closes himself off from everyone especially Jane. But her love and determination not only keeps them together but gives Stephen the needed feeling of normalcy and the inspiration to keep fighting.

“The Theory of Everything” chronicles Hawking’s debilitating disease and the punishing toll it takes on his body and life. But it also highlighted his inspiring resilience and emphasized the unquestioned devotion of Jane. Redmayne is just superb offering several emotional levels to his character while also capturing the increasing physical impairments that end up leaving him bound to a wheelchair and unable to speak. The film is respectful in its handling of the illness and doesn’t exploit it for dramatic effect. But it’s Redmayne who makes it work by immersing himself into the character and avoiding many of the trappings that accompany this kind of role.

I was also surprised at just how much I enjoyed Felicity Jones. She’s charming, genuine, and energetic. Even more, there are times where she actually lifts up the material and makes a line of dialogue or emotional interaction work despite the occasional shortcomings of the script. James Marsh is a skilled documentarian and his work here shows that to be both an asset and a liability. This truly is a beautiful film to look at. There are a number of eye-grabbing shots and some interesting camera tricks. I particularly liked how the camera would sometimes move as if inspired by Hawking’s thorough perspective. It would scour a room or individual soaking up information much like Hawking himself.


But sadly the film isn’t without its problems. It does avoid drawn out discussions of thermal dynamics and cosmology while still representing Hawking’s scientific specialty. But there were moments where the science felt shoehorned in. The film also uses several common biopic devices which keeps it from being anything fresh in the crowded genre. And then there is the last 15 minutes which felt terrible rushed and seemed to cover a few random events meant to tidy everything up. It comes off feeling like the film ran out of time necessitating a quick and clunky ending.

There is still a good story to be found in “The Theory of Everything” despite its standard biopic flavor and rushed ending. In fact it has moments where it absolutely shines. But the performances are the real treat especially from Redmayne who gives us the best work of his young career. It’s hard to watch him and not be impressed with the effort and earnestness he puts into every facet of the Stephen Hawking character. For someone like myself it was a surprise performance and it is hard to argue with his Oscar nomination and win. Now let’s just hope that his “Jupiter Ascending” performance didn’t undo the recognition this film has earned him.


REVIEW: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”


Obviously there have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with the Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal scar on world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the subject through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy. It’s a tender but crushing tale of the loss of innocence as we watch this young boy discover the truth about the world around him. Some critics have said it exploits or trivializes the Holocaust with others going as far as to call it offensive. I found it to be a careful yet devastating drama that ultimately succeeds in the end.

Asa Butterfield, better known for his more recent starring role in “Hugo”, plays Bruno. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a Nazi SS officer who gets a new assignment requiring him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision. But Bruno finds himself alone and missing his friends back in Berlin. His loneliness and boredom spurs his curiosity and he begins noticing several interesting things about his new location. One is a mysterious “farm” in the distance that he sees from his bedroom window but is forbidden to visit or ask about. He’s also intrigued by a house servant who he notices is wearing what looks like striped pajamas. Of course we know the servant is Jewish and a captive, but through young Bruno’s eyes things are more confusing.


One of the most engaging things about the movie is that writer and director Mark Herman is able to keep us inside of Bruno’s head even though we know exactly what’s going on outside of his knowledge. I found the film to be very effective at conveying the feeling of discovery as Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from his twice-a-week tutor who bombards him with all sorts of Nazi propaganda and revisionist history, but from a young Jewish boy. Bruno encounters the boy after sneaking away from his house and stumbling across the “farm”. Of course it’s actually a Nazi execution camp and the boy, named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sits on the other side of an electrified fence. The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel who begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question both his father and his cause.

The movie never loses sight of the fact that Bruno is only 8-years-old. He struggles with what he’s seeing and his attempts to reconcile certain things with his desire to see his father as a good man is heartbreaking. Even when his mother finds out why they’ve moved to the country and furiously confronts Ralf, we still witness these things through Bruno’s child-like reasoning. But there is an emotional balance. While we spend most of our time with Bruno, we know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in often subtle ways.


The performances throughout the film are fantastic. Farmiga is one Hollywood’s better actresses and she shows that here. I also appreciated Thewlis’ portrayal of a man who often times puts his role of father in complete subjection to his duties as a Nazi soldier. But it’s young Butterfield who gets the vast majority of the screen time and he is quite good. He draws a lot of sympathy and emotion  and it’s always great to see a young actor able to pull that off. I also enjoyed his scenes with young Scanlon. While Butterfield is better in their scenes, they both handle the material nicely.

I can see where “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may put off some people. It’s hard to watch especially as everything comes to a head at the end of the film. In fact, it’s a movie I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings with the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that stuck with me for several days. I was incredibly moved and while there are some legitimate questions that could be asked about the story, the movie’s main point resonated with me. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” asks several powerful questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that is still hard to look at but should be reckoned with.