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The trailer for Focus Features’ The Theory of Everything, a film about the early life of Stephen Hawking, was one of the best in recent memory, and it set a very high bar for the James Marsh-directed film itself to live up to. But, having now seen the complete product at its Toronto Film Festival world premiere on Sunday evening, I can submit to you this much: Thanks to a landmark performance by Eddie Redmayne and standout supporting work by Felicity Jones, as well as great production quality all around, it meets that bar — and then some.
The warm ovation that greeted the heartbreaking but inspirational drama — which was adapted by Anthony McCarten from the autobiography of Jane Hawking, Stephen’s college sweetheart turned wife, and directed by Marsh, who previously helmed only one other narrative feature but won the best documentary Oscar for his massively acclaimed film Man on Wire (2008) — supports that position. And the prolonged standing ovation that greeted its stars after the end credits support another; namely, that Redmayne will be tough to beat in the best actor race and Jones will have a strong shot of her own in the lead or supporting actress race. (Her placement is still being debated but I’m told Focus is leaning toward the latter.)
The Theory of Everything, which will be released on Nov. 7, checks off a lot of boxes that have historically correlated with Academy success. True story? Check. Biopic? Check. About a person with a terrible affliction? Check. British? Check. Period piece? Check. Love story? Check. And the list goes on. It also tackles head-on a number of interesting debates. For instance, can science and religion be reconciled with one another? And — being a film about Hawking — what are the origins of the universe?
But what really makes this movie special is the all-out performance of 32-year-old Redmayne, whose career I’ve been tracking for years, from his early appearance as Matt Damon‘s son in The Good Shepherd (2006) through two very good recent perfs, opposite Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn (2011) and opposite Amanda Seyfried in Les Miserables (2012). Nothing in his past, though, suggested that he was capable of the sort of soulful, transformative work that he does in Theory, which can best be compared to the performance in My Left Foot that won Daniel Day-Lewis the first of his three Oscars 25 years ago.
It must be emphasized, though, that without a great scene partner, this sort of a performance goes nowhere — you may recall that Brenda Fricker also took home an Oscar for My Left Foot — and Redmayne has one of his own in angel-faced Jones (who, you may recall, I’ve been high on for a number of years). While Jones may not have to contort her body or do some of the other physically grueling work demanded of Redmayne, she does have to convey the internal turmoil that her character comes to feel when the man whom she fell in love with changes drastically and requires of her a sort of attention and care that would come to feel burdensome to anyone, which is no easy task either.
Throw on top of all of the above some beautiful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme (Lawless) and a stirring score by Johann Johannsson (Prisoners), among other below-the-line elements, and you might well have the makings of a best picture Oscar nominee. Only time will tell.
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