Film Review: The Theory of Everything

It’s round two in the battle of the scientist biopics and much anticipation has surrounded The Theory of Everything, released on New Year’s Day and telling the story of 30 years in Stephen Hawking’s life, from his early days at Cambridge to the onset of his motor neurone disease, and covering the publication of A Brief History of Time. Where this departs from the usual science movie is a love-story focus on Hawking’s relationship with his wife Jane from the moment they met at Cambridge to their divorce in the 1990s.

It is their personalities, experiences and struggles which are centre-stage rather than either the science or Hawking’s growing disability which is an interesting and effective approach. It means that the film is less a chart of the physical effects of motor neurone disease and more an intimate examination of the domestic consequences of living with and caring for someone who was once told he only had two years to live. It also takes quite a light touch with the science, which may disappoint some, but for the majority will be a relief. In fact the approach is the same – the science is there and integral to his life but the perspective taken is more human and seen primarily through the prism of his home life. So we see the couple debating the existence of God so that Jane’s belief is mirrored by Stephen’s faith in science.

As a whole the film works pretty well; it manages to be not quite a biopic, not quite a science-film and not quite a film about disability and is all the better for navigating between these potential pitfalls, instead creating something that feels as though it is about real people. It is difficult to take a famous name and look behind their public persona, and in stripping away that surface appearance creates a film character that seems credible. A reflection and not an impersonation of who they are, with more depth than a media profile may allow, showing that however eminent or respect the subject is, they are still influenced by the same emotional effects as everyone else, shaping their decision-making. This is a real success of The Theory of Everything, giving the viewer a sense that Hawking is not entirely defined by his job, he’s not just a famous scientist, and his life is far more than his intellectual output. The domestic approach may not be to everyone’s taste but I think it’s wielded here with great effect.

The performances of course are key to this and Eddie Redmayne, playing Hawking, is astonishingly good. This is not much of a surprise, he’s an actor I like a lot and consistent in both the quality of performance and fairly trustworthy in his selection of films. He always creates great depth and pathos in his roles, but combining that emotional complexity with the physicality of this character is so impressive. In My Week with Marilyn, Michelle Williams may have got all the attention for her Monroe, but it was Redmayne who was the emotional heart, effortlessly carrying the film with his tender portrayal of a heartbroken assistant director. Similarly as Stephen in the televised adaptation of Birdsong, he got it spot on. Now Birdsong is my favourite modern novel and although BBC sold out on Stephen’s eventual motivation -using the clichéd child as a reason to live, rather than that war somehow restoring his faith in others – Redmayne’s performance captured the detached complexity of Faulk’s character exactly.  Here as Hawking you get to see the full result of the condition using all of Redmayne’s subtly to show the internal frustration and external bodily effects, as well as the warmth and humour of his personality.

The film is equally focused on Jane Hawking played by Felicity Jones, and her increasing difficulty in managing their three children, running the household and Stephen’s worsening condition. There’s an interesting moment late in the film where she says the doctors had only given him two years to live and it’s ambiguous whether she means ‘and you’ve done so well’ or ‘I only thought this would be for two years.’ Jane is also a fully rounded character in her own right, not merely a reflection of Hawking and it was fascinating to see the sacrifices she makes in caring for her husband particularly in her chaste attachment to local choir master Jonathan (Charlie Cox).

Antony McCarten’s script is engaging and restrained, resisting the urge to make sweeping generalisation about motor neurone disease or hammering home a faux-emotional impact which a more Hollywood version would have attempted. It also looks beautiful and in the Q&A that followed this BFI preview, the director James Marsh discussed the light effects designed to give it a slight sense of heightened reality and reflect Hawking’s interest in cosmology in the colour scheme. The 1963 scenes at the Cambridge May Ball in particular are beautiful and certainly capture the ‘magical’ quality of those occasions.

But this really is Redmayne’s film. Marsh also explained that as scenes are never filmed in sequence, different periods of Hawking’s life were being shot simultaneously, meaning Redmayne had to switch between several different degrees of disability, often on the same day. This is an interesting insight into the technical accomplishment he needed to both manage it and make it convincing. So, having seen both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything the big question seems to be who will win the Oscar. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes have nominated both actors, and these are seen as likely indicators of BAFTA and Oscar choices. Well, it may be neither of them seeing as the Academy tends to reward American actors most often. They’re similar kinds of actor and both give excellent performances so it is quite hard to choose between them, but if I have to predict, I think Redmayne’s just got this one.

The Theory of Everything was shown at a BFI Southbank preview. It opens nationwide on 1 January 2015.

Conflict-Time-Photography – Tate Modern

Wars and battles leave long-lasting impressions not just on the people involved but also on the land in which they take place. And that effect varies from conflict to conflict or from country to country. Go back to northern France now and those inhuman trench systems and up-churned piles of earth that were ‘visions of hell’ for servicemen in the First World War, are now ordinary fields, as though nothing ever happened. This broad-ranging exhibition at the Tate Modern takes you on a walk through the effects of conflict from moments after events occur to the weeks, months and decades that follow.  The concept is a very interesting and unusual one which could give interesting insight into the process of recovery and reconstruction, but sadly this exhibition’s lack of focus falls short on meaning.

Let’s start with the positives. The idea is a good one, showing how the effect of war continues, dissipates and / or becomes fundamentally bound-up with subsequent conflicts is an important tool to understand why countries look the way they do today. And to use photography as a way to document that process, making it social commentary, political insight and a form of artistic expression, can really bring these effects to life for the viewer. A lot of the pictures are also very beautiful, which somehow seems quite wrong given their subject matter. Simon Norfolk’s images of Afghanistan, also on show at the Barbican’s Constructing World’s, are truly beautiful capturing a light and sky reminiscent of Constable. A few rooms in, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s pictures fill the room from floor to ceiling with images of the debris of war months later. It’s overwhelming in one sense, yet the display balances perspectives and scale placing long aerial shots of ramparts next to close-ups of broken machinery scattered across the desert. She also mixes the military with the personal with touching shots of civilian blankets, long abandoned, dangling into craters and covered in dust – a stark reminder of the displacement of war.

The diversity of this collection is interesting in one sense, encouraging you to think about the enormous number of wars in the past hundred years as well as the experience of those living with the varied long-term consequences of conflict afterwards. But the down-side is that diversity loosens the focus. Most people won’t know enough about all the conflicts represented here to find the odd picture of them at all insightful, and it’s impossible to draw meaningful allusions between the various conflicts on offer. 9 months after Hiroshima, 9 months after the American Civil War and 9 months after Afghanistan are not the same thing. Partly that’s because the context is so different in both these cases and partly because the nature of warfare today is not the same as it was even 70 years ago. Technology has played a huge role in disrupting traditional forms of warfare and in some cases actually removing the individual from the combat moment. These photos don’t tell you anything about that changing nature of warfare, except that it has long-lasting effects, which we know. It’s rather disingenuous of the Tate to even suggest that any of these conflicts are the same, have the same effects or heal at the same rate – just looking at the images all herded together as ‘9 months later’ or ‘10 years later’ shows that they clearly don’t. Perhaps they should have offset this by adding information boards explaining why these conflicts were chosen for each section and what they’re supposed to have in common (if anything) x-number of years later.

One other point of caution here is that almost all of these photos are taken by people not involved in the conflict, giving it a more documentary feel. Had it included more images taken by combatants or civilians caught up in these events, then at least the Tate could make some interesting points about the lasting effects of conflict and how some people spend the rest of their lives searching for meaning. There is a considerable difference between the social effects of conflict on individuals which can last generations, and political expediency which sees formally warring nations trading again within a very short time-frame, which this exhibition makes no account for.

And, I’ve made this point before, but where were the depictions of the UK’s experience of war; there may not have been recent land warfare here but the effects of aerial bombardment have had a considerable effect on the social and geographical make-up of the ensuing years. The creation of social housing projects and the great glass skyscrapers that dominate the London skyline are arguable an enormous part of the regeneration process since the two World Wars.  There are more than 10 rooms of photographs here, with one entirely devoted to Berlin, so surely a couple of snaps of the capital could have been squeezed in for local relevance.

It would have given the exhibition greater focus had it confined itself to covering a smaller number of conflicts and then attempting to show their change over time. Then you would be able to draw a clear developmental line from moments to years later, while simultaneously comparing that with the rate of progress / effects of other wars. The Tate, given its hefty ticket prices this year, could also have commissioned some original photography and sent someone to all those battle sites now. How powerful would a shot of the Last Post played at Ypres on 4 August 2014 have been as an ending to this? The art critics may have loved this but as it stands, and despite the beautiful pictures, all this exhibition has to say is that wars are messy and their consequences last a long time. For anyone growing up in Britain alone, the effect of conflict is all around us, and most of it is far older than the 100 year glance back offered here. Look at the Roman roads, the people with Anglo Saxon genetic heritage, and the castles that have stood for almost a thousand years, that’s over two millennia of conflict history, still standing. So yes the effects of war last a long time, and you don’t have to pay £14.50 to find that out.

Conflict-Time-Photography is at the Tate Modern until 15 March 2015. Tickets start at £14.50 (£13.10 without donation) and a concession price is available.

Film Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

It’s great to see films that experiment with their material and this  last minute, but very welcome addition to the London Film Festival programme, focuses on the breakdown of a marriage following the unseen death of a couple’s baby son a few months before. Essentially this is 3 films, one from Eleanor’s perspective (Jessica Chastain), one from Conor’s perspective (James McAvoy) and this third version subtitled ‘Them’ which unites elements of their individual streams into one two hour film. The ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions were shown at Cannes last year although have yet to be released in the UK, so like many others ‘Them’ is the only version of this story I had seen, and it is an engaging  film.

It begins some months after the death of their baby son and Eleanor has disappeared. At no point do we find out what happened to the child or see the couple with him which is a very sensible move from director and writer Ned Benson. It means this carefully constructed and contained film focuses on the aftermath of a tragic event and the consequences for both the individuals and their relationship. It runs on two parallel tracks as Eleanor tries to fill her time with classes at a local university where she finds a friendship of sorts with her lecturer. Meanwhile Conor is running a failing restaurant-bar with his best friend and stalling while he tries to accept his attempt at independence has been unsuccessful. Eventually he knows he’ll have to give in and join forces with his father’s trendy restaurant.

It also has some things to say about parental relationships and it’s interesting to see an American film that doesn’t entirely portray this big all-loving close family idea. Eleanor’s mother is quite distant and not entirely sympathetic to her daughter’s plight, although they clearly care about each other it’s not a close and confiding relationship. Conor likewise seems to resent his father’s success (Ciaran Hinds) and inability to match-up to it, so like a moody teenager he spends much of his time rolling his eyes or avoiding all but a surface engagement. In some ways it’s a far more realistic picture of family interaction than usually seen, and you start to wonder, with such influences, what sort of parents Conor and Eleanor would have made.

Chastain’s gives a complex and emotional performance as Eleanor; she is frustrated by her husband’s ‘put it all in a cupboard and move on’ approach, but she also decides to cut and run, creating a new emotionally unengaged life far away from the wife and mother role she used to have. Although she has a close friendship with her sister and begins to develop a bond with her caustic university lecturer, Eleanor is an isolated figure somewhat separated from her family and with no other friends which in Chastain’s performance feels partially like a deliberate severing and partly a consequence of the person she must have been before the tragedy.

By contrast Conor is far  warmer, with a group of friends at his bar and his father with whom he develops a respect as the film progresses. MacAvoy is also excellent (as ever) as the pained Conor, who cannot quite admit his marriage and business are over. Yet his approach is a more practical one, dealing with the consequences of their tragedy affects him differently but no less intensely. McAvoy’s performance is very sensitive and feels believable, but there’s no judgement about Conor, or even Eleanor, being wrong in their response. Conor is very likeable while it is actually harder for the audience to get close to Eleanor because she actively distances herself.

Interestingly Benson uses different colours to light their screen presence; Eleanor has a lighter tone, while Conor is often in tints of blue or black, which the director explained is also used in the ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions as a reflection of their character. What makes this project different is its focus on how people deal with tragedy and chooses, quite rightly, not to show you the actual events. Instead fragments of their early relationship are occasionally seen as the characters recall memories of their happier past, but again these are kept to a minimum and used to demonstrate both how optimistic their expectations were then, and the nature of the bond between them. We may not see the past and the future but there is an indication that these two will always be in each other’s lives.

There are a few occasions where Eleanor and Conor cross paths and these scenes are both intense and engaging, showing the awkwardness of a couple breaking up dealing with someone who feels both incredibly familiar and like a stranger. I loved the concept of this three version film and hope that ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ are given a UK release. At least the director hopes to have them all on the DVD together. Nonetheless, ‘Them’ stands alone as sensitive insight into the way people handle difficult events and how it affects their view of themselves, as well as being a successful experiment for Ned Benson, using the same material to make 3 different films. If you get a chance to see it, I would highly recommend you do.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was shown at the London Film Festival. No wider UK release date for any of the 3 versions of the film is yet available but look out for them on DVD.

Charles III – Wyndhams Theatre

The arrival of a new monarch is often to be feared, especially after a long and stable reign. But the very nature of this form of government (usually) requires a death to occur before a new age is ushered in. Will the new ruler be fair, dignified and peaceable, or will they court controversy, spend extravagantly and encroach on our rights? Such a change evokes perfectly natural fears and history is awash with examples of heirs to the throne who were considered weak or even downright hated. Much of the time, however, they turned out to be perfectly adequate, even pretty good Kings and Queens.

Transferring from its critically acclaimed run at the Almeida theatre, Charles III leaps forward about 10 years to the death of our present Queen and the moment where Prince Charles ascends to the British throne. Immediately Charles, a thoughtful man with integrity, decides to withhold his signature from a bill ensuring privacy from media intrusion. His reasons are sensible but his interference in the constitutional process leads to a showdown with the Prime Minister and serious consequences for the fragile new state.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the use of blank verse which gives it a grand and almost timeless Shakespearean feel. Had it used more modern speech it could easily have felt trite and soap-opera like. Instead what you get is a serious comedy drama touching on some universal themes about the nature of power and the limitations of constitutional monarchy. Even the notion of a King providing an advisory check and balance to the temporary authority of elected politicians is called into questioned when that theoretical sway is used to halt a democratic process.  To what extent then should the honour of a King, even with the intention of doing good, be used to obviate Parliamentary decisions?

The role of Charles is an interesting one here and happily the play is quite balanced in its presentation of him.  While you may not agree with what he’s doing he is a man of integrity and genuinely believes that what he is doing will be to the advantage of the law being created; the refusal to sign is to encourage the government to think more carefully about its proposal rather than an attempt to overthrow the democratic process. However as the play progresses and Charles digs his heels in, his willingness to compromise is lost and his temper leads to some poor decision-making. I loved the subtle references to the personal rule of Charles I and that hint at the historic precedents for monarchs clashing with Parliaments down the ages came across really well.

Although Tim Piggott-Smith didn’t perform on the day I saw it, his understudy was very good and the show didn’t suffer for the absence of its star. It is becoming common for leads not to do the matinees, which is annoying for people paying the high prices and it ought to be noted on the website. In this case it wasn’t so it may well just have been illness on the day. The surrounding cast is very good too, especially Adam James as the much harassed Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe as the somewhat two-faced leader of the opposition, privately supporting the King but publically disowning him. Envisaging Kate as a Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating events and effortlessly controlling both the family and the public is one of the highlights of the show.

It’s not entirely perfect and the subplot involving Harry wanting to leave the family to be with a deeply irritating pro-republic student lacks any credibility and the performances are pretty flat. Of course the plot is driven by the stark differences between the ruling styles of Charles and his mother, but I couldn’t help being slightly frustrated by the fairly clichéd assumption that Charles would be a bad King. For a man who’s spent the best part of 70 years watching an arguably successful reign it seemed unlikely that he would upset the apple cart so early in his own rule. There are many examples of Princes of Wales whose accession were feared – George IV as Prince Regent was loathed and Queen Victoria’s heir (later Edward VII) was considered profligate – but they ruled unchallenged. There is balance in Charles III however and we see that an essentially decent person doesn’t always make an effective King. It’s a fascinating exploration of the British democratic process and where power actually lies in our constitution. See it if you can.

Charles III is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 31st January and tickets start at £20.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived – Museum of London

In all of British literature there are only two characters who have managed to escape from their books and take on a life of their own. Far beyond the intentions of their authors, they have been constantly reimagined, rewritten and rebooted through TV adaptations, films and homage novels by contemporary writers. Since their creation, every subsequent generation has found in them a modern hero just as suited to their era as to the one they originally belong, and able to triumph over the wrongs of the age. Their continued success resides in their very human ability to overcome their frailties, fallibility and oddities to defeat their enemies and protect Britain.  These two men have blurred fiction and reality for decades, and they are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.

London has enjoyed a number of Bond exhibitions in the last few years and with Bond in Motion running until December at the Film Museum our favourite spy will continue to draw the crowds. But the Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition is quite unique and a rare chance to see something of the genesis of the character within the context he was created and his later absorption into popular culture. You enter this exhibition through a secret door in a bookcase, more Batman than Holmes perhaps, but a nice introduction to the world of secrets and detection. Most appropriately you are immediately greeted by the public image, the filmed versions and their original posters that demonstrate Holmes’s appear from the birth of cinema to the modern BBC.

Then almost like walking through the illusion the exhibition takes you right back to Conan Doyle’s very first manuscripts and notes for a character he initially called Sherrinford Holmes with his sidekick Ormond Sacker. In this early section we then see the more recognisable Holmes and Watson take shape in a number of short stories printed in publications such as The Strand Magazine before launching a fuller length novel. Most interesting is the idea that the image of Holmes was being created alongside the literary version through the illustrations of Conan Doyle’s father and later of Sidney Paget, and it is here, rather than the text, that the ‘look’ we know today comes from.

Having learnt a bit about the original stories and the author, this exhibition really begins to have fun with the material and we get to explore contemporary London and Holmes’s lifestyle through references in the stories. The great detective has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the capital’s streets so the Museum has created maps for three of the stories plotting the routes Holmes and Watson take by cab, on foot and by train. Underneath each is a video reproduction of the same journey taken today and played at high speed.  It’s all about context in this section and showing the viewer how Conan Doyle’s London would have looked under the strain of its expanding industrialised population. Paintings and photographs are used to highlight key places mentioned in the books – The Strand, particular hotels, The Tower of London and Trafalgar Square, which, although recognisably the same place, is yet so different without Lutyens 1930s fountains. We see pictures of the famous Hansom cabs that Holmes takes everywhere and the railway tracks and stations that gave greater mobility to his powers of detection. There is also a small section on the atmospheric London fog inspiring artists like Monet to depict its changing colours and ethereal effects.

The final room is filled with cabinets containing an array of Victorian and Edwardian artefacts which give a sense of the social history around Holmes. There are telephones and telegraph machines similar to the ones Conan Doyle would have envisaged his character using, examples of clothing, pince-nez, typewriters, stage make-up and wigs for Holmes’s disguises, furniture such as Paget’s own chairs which he installed in Baker Street in several illustrations, pipes, chemistry and fingerprint kits, as well as canes and the famous deerstalker. For fans of the current series they even have the blue great coat and dressing gown worn by Cumberbatch which will draw a lot of fans.

The Museum of London has pulled together a very fine exhibition here giving the viewer access to both original manuscripts and the context in which he was created. It’s a clever approach that simultaneously links descriptions from Conan Doyle’s stories to the world around him, and shows us those influences to provide new and clearer insight into the text. As one of Britain’s most enduring fictional characters there is a physical Holmes for every age; whether yours is Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are all here as part of the man who, as the subtitle of this exhibition tells, us will never die.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is at the Museum of London until 12 April 2015. Tickets cost £12.55 (with donation) and a range of concessions are available.


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