Thoughts on The Theory of Everything and Only Lovers Left Alive

Aside from an abundance of English accents, the above have little in common. However, I happened to see them in the same week and while one is too old to review and I probably don’t have enough to say about the other to warrant a whole post, I had a few thoughts about each I wanted to set down.

First, the Hawking movie. It would, I think, simply be silly to be remotely critical of Eddie Redmayne here; he was as close to perfect, and as far from impression or parody, as anyone could ever ask him to be. I don’t for a minute question whether he deserves all the accolades heaped on his head; with that in mind, I also think there’s a great deal to be said for the direction, at least from a performance perspective. However, I was left feeling largely like I’d missed the point. Usually with a biopic there’s an arc, a focus – an overall reason for telling this story, at this time and in this way. Unquestionably, Stephen Hawking has led a life that is out of the ordinary in a number of ways, and that makes it a compelling proposition. But where the oft-compared The Imitation Game largely focussed on a particular period in Turing’s life, and came with a healthy dose of social justice polemic to boot, The Theory of Everything is essentially a greatest hits of Hawking’s life from MND diagnosis to the end of his marriage to first wife Jane.

Of course the primary reason for this time span is that the source material is Jane’s book (and how good to see a woman’s story and perspective for a change). But in trying to summarise everything it feels like a thread has snapped somewhere along the line. Perhaps because both are still alive, and in spite of Felicity Jones being marvellous, Jane seems oddly airbrushed; actually, the whole film has a soft-focus, with any sexual or gory medical detail much more inferred than displayed. Again, I think, a side effect of choosing a living subject – a largely private one, at that.

There is, thankfully, no hokey disability narrative; the Motor Neurone Disease Association appeal shown just before the film deftly made the point that Hawking’s length of life post-diagnosis is pretty unusual and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to imply that there’s any special strength of spirit that is the cause of this. It actually does an admirable job of acknowledging the considerable challenges of living with MND, whilst allowing a full characterisation of the subject as a complex – and obviously hyper-intelligent – human being. Still, there was one moment where Hawking imagines stepping out of his chair to pick up a student’s dropped pen – one of those inescapable cure-fantasy moments that seem to come built into any story where disability is an essential part of the story.

A little soft-focus, a little abbreviated, a little airbrushed… is it better, perhaps, to be as accurate and respectful as one can be about reality than to basically make bits up for dramatic effect, as The Imitation Game has been accused of? Perhaps for the subject; but I can tell you which makes better cinema.

And yet, having just complained about the lack of structure in The Theory of Everything, in the same week I hugely enjoyed a film with absolutely no real plot to speak of, Only Lovers Left Alive.

I’ll generally watch any old vampire crap as long as it’s not full-on horror, and there is something wholly irresistible about the idea of Tilda Swinton as the undead. Throw in John Hurt – as Kit Marlowe, no less! – and Tom Hiddleston (finally out-manoeuvred on-screen by his manifestly more experienced colleagues, but still very good), and I’m already sold. But I generally have little patience for excessively self-indulgent faffing, and the first few minutes of the film, beautiful though they were, threatened to annoy my short attention span. And yet… touches of unexpected humour, jarring references to YouTube and Apple product placement, captivating moodiness and just the right touch of self-aware silliness… altogether, frankly, it was a little gem. Every so often, a burst of activity threatens to add a storyline, but then it just sort of rolls on – as well life might if you’ve been alive and married for centuries.

Perhaps that’s exactly the difference between a biopic that rattles from station to station with no clear destination and a drive through the desert with no road at all.

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