For your consideration…
With yesterday’s nominations behind us, Academy Awards season is in full swing. In the run up to the big night, I’ll cast an eye over various talents hotly tipped to go home with the golden statue. Every week, I’ll give an in-depth appraisal of select performers and motion pictures, concluding my review by nominating who I think is most deserving of joining the list of illustrious Oscar winners. Up first, I’ll discuss the performance of Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
I’m not ashamed to say that when I learned that Redmayne was taking on the role of esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking, I was skeptical. That’s not to suggest that I don’t hold him in high regard as an actor. From his career on stage, most notably in his Tony and Olivier Award winning role in Red, to his excellent screen work in projects such as the BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong, I’ve appreciated his subtle, understated approach to roles and found him highly capable of delivering nuanced and empathetic performances.
My surprise stemmed from the fact that I had begun to suspect that Redmayne’s choice of screen projects had fostered a false impression of his range that would ultimately pigeonhole him in the minds of casting directors. Redmayne excels at playing young, romantically whimsical, and endearingly vulnerable young men. His roles in Birdsong, Les Miserables, and My Week With Marilyn all saw him deliver strong performances, yet they were easily identifiable by lingering close-ups on wistful eyes and trembling lips betraying the agony of unrequited or forbidden love. Coupled with his moonlighting as a model for British fashion giant Burberry, certain members of the press were known to ask, “Is Eddie Redmayne more than just a pout?”
The Theory of Everything lays rest to such cynicism and announces Redmayne as an actor of tremendous gravitas. The first thirty minutes or so of the film finds him on familiar turf as a young, bashful doctoral candidate. Redmayne’s bashful and bumbling charm quickly has us rooting for Hawking in the pursuit of his future wife. He gives the audience insight into Hawking’s infectious optimism and sly sense of humour, and we are delighted when we see the young couple share a first kiss under a firework freckled Cambridge sky. As enjoyable as all this is, it’s by no means a stretch for Redmayne. We’ve seen him do this before, to great effect, in My Week With Marilyn. It’s interesting, however, to note the subtlety with which Redmayne is able to hint at the onset of motor neurone disease, and it is to his credit that he is able to show us a trembling hand or trip over on a staircase without it screaming impending tragedy.
It’s not until Hawking is diagnosed with motor neurone disease that we see Redmayne truly excel. I would have liked the film to dwell slightly longer on the immediate aftermath of this revelation, as Redmayne does a terrific job of silently portraying the mental anguish of a young man looking at his functioning body and trying to comprehend how it will turn against him. As the marriage adapts to this new reality, Redmayne effectively translates the chemistry between husband and wife into a new, unfamiliar, and fiercely unromantic context.
Indeed, the warmth of Redmayne’s performance allows us to understand why Jane never thinks twice about marrying and then nursing a man she expects to die within two years. As Hawking’s body is gradually ravaged by illness, Redmayne’s silent and immobile performance never fails to communicate the essence of Hawking. Every flicker of the eyes or lifting of a finger conveys a specific, articulate message. Some actors portraying disabled characters simply play the disability, relentlessly forcing the affliction upon the audience and, as such, the performance is broad and one-dimensional (seen I am Sam? You’ll know what I mean).
The power of Redmayne’s performance lies in his understanding that by reserving his movements for moments of great significance, the moments when he put a hand out toward his wife are so much more powerful, and emphasize the desperation or rage Hawking feels in that very moment. In this respect, Redmayne’s performance reminds me of Heath Ledger’s electrifying turn in Brokeback Mountain, a performance so minimalistic and withdrawn that the moments the character did dredge up words their impact was phenomenal.
Similarly, the impact that a lonely tear trickling down Hawking’s face as he and Jane accept that they must go their separate ways is remarkable. The tear is triggered by this understanding, but so visceral is Redmayne’s performance that it conveys so much more; it speaks to Hawking’s frustration at what he has become to his wife and to his anger at what they might have been had things been different.
Will Redmayne win? He certainly seems to be the front-runner, as his win at the Golden Globes last week demonstrates. I do, however, have a feeling that this might be too much too soon for the Academy, and that they might overlook this exceptional performance in favour of one from an actor with a weightier body of work and a couple of Oscar nominations on his resume (cue Bradley Cooper). Regardless, The Theory of Everything dispels the myth that Redmayne’s repertoire is limited to hapless young romantics and firmly establishes him as an actor of tremendous warmth, intelligence, and depth.
Tom Mack (2L) is a Culture Editor for Juris Diction.
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