The Theory of Everything (2015)

★★★★

The Theory of Everything PosterDirector: James Marsh

Release Date: November 26th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

In The Theory of Everything Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) spends a lifetime trying to figure out the inception of our very existence. For all intents and purposes he succeeds in doing so. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own beliefs. James Marsh’s film ventures down a similar path to that of its central figure as it attempts to fulfil various thematic nodes: love story, tale of human adversity, science exhibition and so on. As these strands weave together to form Stephen’s story they don’t always feel complete. Or maybe they do. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own expectations.

Providing those expectations aren’t bound up by a need to see something totally flawless, The Theory of Everything should cover all bases sufficiently. Most of us are aware of Stephen Hawking; certainly of his illness if not the physicist’s scientific endeavours. The film takes us through Stephen’s adult life, from his first inclinations that something is wrong with his body to the writing of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

But it becomes clear as the picture develops that Marsh’s vision isn’t necessarily weighed down by either disability or science, and instead the director wants to tell the story of a relationship. As such, The Theory of Everything becomes a co-biopic, its emphasis as much on the obvious struggles of Stephen as on the less obvious trials of his long time wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It’s because of this, and because the filmmaker only has two hours to capture a life of enormity, that key elements fall by the wayside. Shortly after Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease — a scene shot so intimately by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme that the devastation is doubled — we learn that he only has two years left to live. Though, in a move that indicates the director’s desire to fit more stuff in, the film nonchalantly evades the two year mark.

It is an unenviable problem to have, one that leaves Stephen’s relationship with Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a little underfed, but the (admittedly necessarily) overstretched journey does afford us more than just an insight into the Hawking family. The early interactions between Stephen and Jane are reminiscent of those shared by Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy; he is quite awkward and she timid, but before long they are strolling around picturesque locales discussing the source of humankind. Both are defined by entirely separate ideologies too, Jane being a believer God and an arts student, Stephen an advocate for method and science. “I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise,” he says and from then we’re totally drawn into the pair’s capricious relationship.

In a manner of speaking, The Theory of Everything draws its pulpy interior from a clash of science and faith. Yet the film never exploits this duel beyond repair and instead uses it as an underlying catalyst for its central love story. Stephen, despite his adoration for the subject, is increasingly pillaged by science, his health deteriorating by the frame. He even defies the presence of a doctor, much to the chagrin of his wife. On the other hand Jane finds herself silently enraptured by the life she might’ve had as she and her husband spend more and more time with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a choir conductor whom Jane meets at church. The influence of the couple’s branching schools of thought is slight but entirely profound, a notion particularly felt when Stephen momentarily submits his incessant ignorance of God and then begins to backtrack. “Are you actually going to allow me to have this moment?” Jane asks.

Much of the praise the film have received thus far has been directed towards the performances of both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for good reason. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that in 2015 these actors will deliver excellence on screen, but the level the pair operate at here is truly magnificent. Redmayne does all the hard graft as Stephen, completely embodying the physicist’s eventual symbolic manifestation. It’s a role without a safety net and Redmayne should be commended for his artistic bravery as well as his tremendous portrayal. Jones is every bit as good, her subtlety and finesse perfectly complementing the physicality in Redmayne’s enactment. She’s more than simply a supplement though, Jones accentuating the strength of Jane through her pained-yet-defiant facial range. Supporting work from the likes of Charlie Cox and David Thewlis is also strong, though it is Redmayne and Jones who stand out significantly.

The Theory of Everything is at its best when Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are united, projecting performances that are totally different but equally effective and affecting. The film is delightfully funny too, and not at all bogged down by disconsolation. And hey, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking, it’s good enough for me.

The Theory of Everything - Redmayne and Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Man on Wire (2008)

★★★★★

Director: James Marsh

Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.

The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.

It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.

The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.

Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.

The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”

The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?

As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.

And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.

Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.

The Imposter (2012)

★★★★★

Director: Bart Layton

Release Date: August 24th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

A documentary is good when it concisely lays out the facts and displays those facts in a manner open to audience interpretation. A documentary is great when it does all of that whilst telling a story and evoking a range of emotions from the audience. James Marsh’s incredible Oscar-winning Man on Wire is an example of a great documentary, and it just so happens that another British director, Bart Layton, is the man behind The Imposter: an astonishing film which has garnered universal critical acclaim and vindicates its place next to the likes of Man on Wire at the pinnacle of great documentaries.

Much like Man on Wire, The Imposter tells the story of a French individual in an extraordinary situation. However that is where the similarities end — tonally, subject-wise, and even stylistically. The documentary-film chronicles the events four years after the disappearance of a young Texan boy named Nicholas Barclay in 1993. Through archive footage, interviews and re-enactments, Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin reveals how he managed to fool Nicholas Barclay’s family into accepting him as their missing son back. As his story unravels, so too does the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the case.

The Imposter is so difficult to comprehend that, during an appearance on Mayo and Kermode’s Film Review, director Bart Layton mentioned how after a screening of the film at the Sundance Film Festival, “Someone put up their hand and asked, ‘I’m interested to know if [The Imposter] is based on a true story'”. This highlights the sheer absurdity of the situation, but also the tremendous ability of Bourdin to manipulate people and create a sense of believability when such a thing does not have any right to be present. The trickster Bourdin looks straight down camera lens as he narrates his side of the story and is eerily charming, coming across as a hypnotist putting the audience under his spell. Throughout the documentary-film, he talks about how from a young age he was neglected a childhood or any semblance of love, linking this deficiency of care and attention to the reason behind his despicable behaviour. This almost gives Bourdin a basis for demanding surreal sympathy — even as his lies become increasingly twisted, the reason behind those lies becomes increasingly clearer.

In contrast, Layton interviews family members of Nicholas Barclay, namely his mother, sister and brother-in-law. They also speak directly to the audience, each of them emitting a genuine sense of pain, wonderment and anger towards the circumstances they have lived through. These traits remain uncannily vivid even after a decade and a half, conveying just how skillful-yet-dastardly the unnervingly gravitating Bourdin is. As the piece progresses, more and more real life characters become entangled in the case, with more and more cracks appearing in Bourdin’s disguise. The final half hour of The Imposter eclipses the riveting first part of the documentary-film, as it enters a whole new heart-pounding level altogether. Each different layer to the story begins to overlap with the one which precedes it, as Layton gradually unveils fresh elements that come together in an explosive and intense conclusion. The number of films which have generated this amount of drama in the past year since The Imposter’s release is probably a number which could be counted on one hand.

Other than the obvious astounding nature of the story, one of the key factors behind the success of The Imposter is the style in which it is shot. As aforementioned, all of the interviews are conducted as if the interviewee is conversing directly with the audience. This adds an almost personal feel to proceedings — as if the viewer is the one interrogating Bourdin or speaking to the Barclay family. Alongside that, Layton’s decides to recreate — or in this case re-imagine — how the non-documented events happened (90 percent of the events were not documented first-hand). This develops a cinematic quality to the documentary-film. The Imposter therefore plays like a thoroughly thought-out and heavily invested-in piece of work. Just as matters begin to slip too far over to the cinematic side, Layton reels the audience back into the unsettling realism of events, either with an interview snippet involving Bourdin or archive footage of a young Nicholas Barclay with his family.

It would perhaps have been simpler and certainly far more financially rewarding for Bart Layton to have directed The Imposter as a Hollywood drama. Something tells me that the thought never even crossed Layton’s mind though — what he has here is an astonishingly captivating piece of work which at times plays like a fear-inducing horror film.

The question at the centre of it all is: how far would you go to believe the unbelievable?

Credit: Yards of Grapevine
Credit: Yards of Grapevine