This week’s new films reviewed

Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything

Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything

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The heart-rending biopic of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (12A)

In Scottish novelist JM Barrie’s most beloved work, Peter Pan famously contemplates his mortality on Marooner’s Rock and observes, “To die will be an awfully big adventure”.

For more than half a century since he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has – happily – pushed aside his awfully big adventure and astounded the medical community.

Defying the short life expectancy associated with the rare condition, he has married twice, raised a family and altered our narrow perception of the universe including the publication of his worldwide bestseller, A Brief History Of Time.

As Hawking remarked at a press conference in 2006, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”

Those inspirational words are repeated verbatim in The Theory Of Everything.

Based on the memoir Travelling To Infinity by Jane Wilde Hawking, James Marsh’s deeply moving drama charts the romance of Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and first wife Jane (Felicity Jones) from fleeting glances at a party at mid-1960s Cambridge University through their subsequent battle against MND.

Stephen’s parents Frank (Simon McBurney) and Isobel (Abigail Cruttenden) initially warn Jane off their son, fearful of the emotional devastation that will be wrought if he dies within the two years predicted by doctors.

“It’s not going to be a fight, Jane. It’s going to be a very heavy defeat, for all of us,” laments Frank.

Love must find a way and Jane defies everyone, even a pessimistic Stephen, to stand beside her soul mate.

“I want us to be together, for as long as we’ve got,” she tells him. “If that’s not very long then – well, that’s just how it is.”

Her resolve inspires Stephen to continue his search for “one single elegant equation to explain everything”.

Aided by choirmaster Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and carer Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), Jane raises the couple’s three children and holds their marriage together.

The Theory Of Everything is anchored by two of the year’s best performances.

Redmayne is simply astounding, affecting a mesmerizing physical transformation that surely warrants an Oscar.

He brilliantly conveys every raw emotion or flash of impish humour with his eyes or the twitch of a facial muscle.

Jones is equally compelling as his soul mate, who sacrifices everything in the name of love.

The scene in which she finally acknowledges hard-fought defeat to save the relationship and tearfully tells Stephen, “I have loved you... I did my best,” is heartbreaking.

Director Marsh uses simple visual motifs to illuminate the complex cosmology, such as a swirl of cream in a cup of coffee to represent a spiral galaxy in Stephen’s mind.

With its delicate balance of tear-stained drama, deeply felt romance and comedy, The Theory Of Everything hits upon a winning formula.

RATING: 8.5/10

BIRDMAN (15)

According to Konstantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, two founding fathers of method acting, the best performers possess the rare ability to channel deeply personal recollections and emotions through their characters.

These actors don’t just play a role as written, they share every breath and straining sinew with their alter ego.

In Birdman, Michael Keaton inhabits the role of a middle-aged Hollywood star, whose glory days as a big screen superhero are long behind him.

It’s the role of a lifetime for Keaton – the role of his lifetime, no less, nodding and winking to his two stints behind Batman’s cowl under director Tim Burton in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Art and real life playfully blur in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s technically dazzling comedy, which was shot on location in New York.

In one of the film’s bravura handheld sequences, Keaton strides purposefully through crowded, neon-lit Times Square in just his underpants as tourists clamour with their mobile devices.

Literally and figuratively, he bares his soul.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who deservedly won an Oscar for sci-fi thriller Gravity, meticulously splice together each interlude to resemble a single, unbroken 119-minute shot.

If you look closely you can see the joins but, as a feat of split-second timing, balletic choreography and directorial brio, Birdman is jaw-dropping – right down to the moment the camera casually pans to a drummer on the street playing the same beats and rolls of Antonio Sanchez’s improvised jazz score.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) rose to fame playing a superhero called Birdman in three blockbuster films.

Twenty years later, he masterminds a comeback with nervy producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) by directing, writing and starring in a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

As opening night approaches and revered critics including Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) prepare to deliver their waspish verdict, petty squabbles between Riggan and his cast – popular Broadway star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), leading lady Lesley (Naomi Watts) and current squeeze Laura (Andrea Riseborough) – threaten to derail the vanity project.

The leading man struggles to keep personal demons at bay, exacerbated by fractious exchanges with his spirited daughter Sam (Emma Stone).

Accompanied by a rambling voiceover from Riggan that reflects the character’s mental unravelling, Birdman is a wickedly funny satire of a world of overinflated egos and barely concealed vices.

Performances are uniformly excellent, from Keaton’s career-revitalising turn to Stone’s fearless portrayal of a recovering drug addict and Norton’s hilarious embodiment of an artist who believes that, “popularity is just the slutty little cousin of prestige”.

Peppered with affectionate verbal barbs aimed at Hollywood’s current glitterati, Inarritu’s picture is crammed to bursting with self-referential treats that demand a second and third viewing.

Birdman is the post-Christmas gift that keep on giving.

RATING: 9/10

THE WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH (15)

Ghost stories are well suited to the visual medium of film because what terrifies us aren’t the things we can see in the cold light of day but the unspoken horrors that lurk just out of shot or in the inky blackness of a dimly lit background.

The monsters that induced wide-eyed terror in our childhood lurked under the bed or in the wardrobe.

They were silent, deadly menaces, conjured by febrile imaginations and drip-fed on our irrational yet all-consuming fear.

Over the decades, filmmakers have preyed mercilessly – and sometimes masterfully – on this deep-rooted, primal paranoia to quicken the pulse and whiten our knuckles.

Hammer Horror’s 2012 film version of The Woman In Black, based on Susan Hill’s celebrated horror novella of the same name, certainly hit a raw nerve.

Blessed with a post-Harry Potter leading role for Daniel Radcliffe, the resolutely old-fashioned haunted house yarn became the most successful British horror film for 20 years.

When those box office tills started ringing, Tom Harper’s sequel was a foregone conclusion.

Set 40 years later during the Blitz, Angel Of Death continues the reign of terror of the vengeful ghost, which haunts the cobweb-strewn hallways of Eel Marsh House.

Stern headmistress Jean Hogg (Helen McCrory) and sensitive teacher Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox) evacuate a group of London schoolchildren to the countryside including a shell-shocked boy called Edward (Oaklee Pendergast), whose parents perished in the latest barrage of German bombs.

Their guide, Dr Rhodes (Adrian Rawlins), shepherds the school party to its new home: the dilapidated Eel Marsh House.

“The place has been deserted for years,” he assures the women and their wards.

Unaware of the building’s grim history, the school party settles into a new routine.

The spectre of the house (Leanne Best) latches on to Edward, who is being bullied, and exacts revenge on one tormentor Tom (Jude Wright) before turning her attention to the other interlopers.

Eve musters her courage to protect her young charges, aided by a handsome pilot called Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine) who is stationed nearby.

The Woman In Black: Angel Of Death is bereft of original ideas and resorts to a familiar array of ominous creaks and groans to herald the arrival of the eponymous spirit.

Fox’s plucky heroine puts herself in harm’s way with such foolhardy regularity, you have to question her suitability as a teacher.

Meanwhile, McCrory purses her lips for portentous remarks like, “Our worst enemy is ourselves: our fears, doubt, despair. That’s what will destroy us.”

Duly noted.

In response, perhaps, to complaints from parents about the 12A classification of the first film, Harper’s sequel sports a 15 certificate and a warning about strong horror and threat.

Ironically, the original was scarier and shoe-horned more jump-out-of-your-seat boos into 90 minutes.

RATING: 5/10