A Brief History of Hawking- Redmayne’s performance shines in a sometimes overambitious film.

Let’s get this out the way; Eddie Redmayne is phenomenal in this film. He gives a performance of great nuance as he slowly slips from showing the first signs of Stephen Hawking’s well-known disability into something more recognisable as the physicist that we know today. It is all in the detail; from the eyes to the way he holds his mouth he creates a sensitive portrait of the iconic professor. It is a truly impressive, and quite likely an Oscar winning performance.

Having said that, I would be surprised if the film won the prize for best film, as while relatively well made, and at times very well directed, it is a film that sometimes suffers under the weight of its own subject matter. It takes as its source material the second (and kinder) memoir of Hawking’s wife Jane Wilde (played here by Felicity Jones), and unfortunately, reaches beyond its capacity in doing so.

The film attempts to span almost the entirety of Hawking’s adult life, from when he began as a post-graduate student at Cambridge in 1963 to the mid-2000s. In doing so, it fails to commit to any particular period of the physicist’s life, and as an audience we feel many details are missing. Why, for example, do Hawking and Jane drift apart? We are told almost nothing of his scientific advances either, which is a shame, as this is probably the most interesting thing about the sometimes troubled cosmologist.

Ultimately, this is a personal narrative that fails to build enough of a connection with the characters over a sustained period of time for it to be an effective one; too many parts of their lives are simply left unexplained. It is a pity, because the parts of the film that are good, such as the interaction between Stephen and Jane when he loses his voice and is reduced to speaking through eye movements, can be very powerful and, indeed, moving.

The problem is that it necessarily all feels formulaic. It is impossible to squeeze all the life events of a man who has had so many enormous ups and tremendous downs into a coherent film. It becomes the inevitable formula of personal advance followed by physical setback, followed by time jump ad infinitum. The supporting cast does a perfectly adequate job of carrying the piece, but Redmayne is the right man in the right role, and inevitably steals the show, though David Thewlis is also worth a mention as Stephen’s mentor Dennis Sciama, along with Felicity Jones as the long-suffering Jane.

The direction of the film is largely impossible to criticise. An overuse, in my opinion, of some quite unsubtle religious imagery, is perhaps inevitable given the conflicting beliefs of the two protagonists and the divisions it caused between them, but fortunately doesn’t distract too much from the general flow. The cinematography is also excellent, showing Cambridge in all of its academic glory. However, the home-video style montages that serve as time jumps interspersed throughout the film is somewhat egregious and, probably, too simplistic a device for such a complex subject.

The film is, nonetheless, generally a good one, and certainly an enjoyable one. The performances certainly carry what is on occasion a slow script, and it is worth the entrance money just to watch Redmayne become Hawking. It is truly one of the best performances in recent memory, and I would be not at all surprised if he went home with an Oscar this year, even if the film as a whole did not quite live up to my expectations.

A formidable drama of power struggles- my thoughts on Foxcatcher.

Foxcatcher, the story of the ultimately doomed relationship between multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and two of the finest Olympic wrestlers of the 80’s, Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum respectively) is an excellent film. Director Bennet Miller does a fantastic job of moving the wrestling beyond the mat and into the plot itself, as each of the principal characters grapple with their own internal and external struggles.

The performances are the centrepiece of the film and have been rightly praised. Carell has chosen the perfect character to break from his comedy comfort zone, and delivers a brilliant turn as the multi-millionaire John Du Pont. As eerie and unpredictable as Du Pont is, Carell manages to bring out just the right amount of his pathetic and needy nature to help us understand why Du Pont feels it necessary to be so controlling, and this is the variation in tone is the reason why it is such a compelling performance.

Ruffalo and Tatum make up the impressive triumvirate that is the central cast, and both are exceptional. Ruffalo instantly falls into the physicality of the role, subtly asserting his dominance over his brother, not only in his communication but even down to the way the two embrace, in an almost wrestling-like pose, but crucially one of which Ruffalo is always in control. Tatum’s frustration is palpable throughout the piece, and admirably performed both physically and emotionally; his will to break from his brother’s influence is obvious and the driving force of the film.

Indeed, in a film about wrestling, it is this struggle for dominance that catches the eye. Foxcatcher is most obviously a film about fulfilling potential, but it is much more than that. It is a film about stepping out of shadows. This is most obvious with Mark attempting to eclipse his brother, but perhaps the more interesting relationship is that of Du Pont and his controlling mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).

Framing it in this way, we can gain an insight into Du Pont’s obsessive nature. His interest in wrestling initially comes from a desire to break away from his mother’s triumphs in horse breeding and have success of his own. He craves attention, and that is where his controlling obsession comes to the fore. He is caught between a desire to win and a desire to be liked, to be a coach, to be a father figure to his wrestlers, and to some extent he succeeds, at least in the beginning. And yet, when his mother is watching, he falls apart, attempting to show her the empire he is trying to build, but ultimately failing to live up to his junior partners, the Schultz brothers, as she criticises him for his love of this ‘low’ sport.

The only criticism I would have of the film is the fact its slow pacing, which otherwise works well as a tension builder, means that there is no space to explore Du Pont’s backstory and the build-up to the dramatic turn of events with which the film culminates.

It is, in a way, rushed over in an unclear manner in the last thirty minutes and the full extent of Du Pont’s character alteration is perhaps not explored as fully as it could have been. There appears to be a lot of material relating to his breakdown and the reasons behind it, but Miller, for one reason or another has chosen to skip over it, only hinting at what may have been going on. In my opinion he has missed a trick here, as it could have added a bit more reason to the otherwise random nature of Du Pont’s actions.

This does not, however, detract too much from the film as a whole as, in general, it is nicely paced, thoughtfully directed, and beautifully filmed. Foxcatcher is a fantastic vehicle for the talents of its three main cast members, who do not disappoint. Expect the film to be there or thereabouts for the major awards this year, it certainly deserves to be.