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ROSEWATER

Jon Stewart’s temporary break from his “Daily Show” gig has resulted in a solid, committed but cinematically not terribly imaginative film about the incarceration and interrogation of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari in his native Iran in 2009, purportedly on charges of spying. Anchored by a strong performance from Gael Garcia Bernal, “Rosewater” obviously represents a labor of love for the faux newsman-turned-filmmaker, and emerges as a sober, thoughtful addition to the corpus of serious pictures about those unjustly imprisoned under oppressive regimes.

It was, in fact, Bahari’s appearance on Stewart’s show that got him into trouble in Iran. During a visit to the country to cover the presidential election in 2009, he agreed to appear in a sketch with Jason Jones, one of the ersatz correspondents on “The Daily Show,” who actually went to Tehran to film some typically buffoonish footage. Jones pretended to be an American spy and asked Bahari some typically inane questions, to which the Iranian offered serious answers. But Iranian authorities caught wind of the episode and took it to suggest that the reporter was actually taking to an espionage agent. They picked him up at the home of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), where he was staying, and took him in for extended questioning by a “specialist” (Kim Bodnia), who was under pressure from his boss to secure a quick confession (and whom Barahi’s dubbed Rosewater after a scent from his childhood that the man led him to recall). It didn’t help that he had also been consorting with some supporters of the anti-establishment candidate, and had photographed protest demonstrations that had broken out after the dubious results announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won in a landslide against reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi .

In any event the government “specialist” didn’t get the fast, easy confession he wanted. Barahi’s ordeal dragged on for more than a hundred days, during which he was subjected to some physical but more psychological torture. Stewart, Bernal and Bodnia portray the grueling business in mostly straightforward, purely realistic style, and do so with admirable directness. They are able to bring some moments of dark levity into the interrogation sequences, particularly in the later stages, when Bahari takes advantage of his questioner’s prurient interest in non-Iranian lifestyles to divert his attention with ludicrous false admissions. And a hint of magic realism comes to the fore in hazily remembered flashbacks and sequences in which the spirits of Barahi’s stronger-willed father and sister (Haluk Bilginer and Golshifteh Farahani)—both victims of oppressive Iranian regimes going back to the Shah—appear to him to encourage him to remain steadfast. And there are moments, such as an impromptu dance that Bahari does to music in his head, that show his resilience in the midst of his solitary confinement, during which no report of the groundswell of support in the West demanding his release—partially orchestrated by his wife (Claire Foy), who was pregnant when he left for Iran—was kept hidden from him and he was instead informed that he had been abandoned by everybody.

Bernal plays all of this with the intelligence and emotional resonance one has come to expect of him, and it’s characteristic of his—and the film’s—honesty that Bahari doesn’t emerge here as a plaster saint, but as a man riddled with self-doubt and willing to compromise, at least to some extent, to satisfy his captors and win his release. Nor is Rosewater treated as merely a stock villain. As portrayed by Bodnia, he’s depicted as a man under pressure too, although of a less cruel sort, and as a figure blinded by devotion to a regime that relies on terror in order to preserve its ideological basis untainted—as well as a man in a country so shut off from external influences (a fact emphasized by the dissidents’ desire to accumulate as many satellite dishes as possible) that his knowledge of the outside world is almost childlike in its naivete. The rest of the cast offer strong support, with the sad-faced Aghdashloo certainly standing out as a woman beaten down by the repeated losses her family has suffered.

For the most part Stewart and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski emphasize the claustrophobic nature of Bahari’s confinement in Evin Prison, keeping the images close-in while carefully positioning the camera to maintain the captive’s predicament of being cut off completely by the dank, barren walls. But in the exteriors that occur primarily in the first act, before the arrest, they make good use of Jordanian locations to create a real sense of place, even though it’s not actually Tehran. Occasional insertion of contemporary news footage adds to the feeling of authenticity, and the contributions of editor Jay Rabinowitz and composer Howard Shore add to the picture’s immediacy.

There’s a sense of relief at the end of “Rosewater,” when Bahari is released. But any sense of triumph is accompanied by the realization that many remain imprisoned and oppressed in Iran. (Scenes of him leaving many of the Mousavi supporters he met before being arrested now languishing in prison themselves, as well as bittersweet reunion with his mother, are important in that respect.) Stewart hasn’t made a contemporary version of “The Shawshank Redemption”—his is a tough, gritty portrayal of the trials of a single man brutalized by a system that continues to mistreat many more. It won’t bring about the change one hopes for in Iran, of course, but if it contributes to public awareness of the realities there, it will have served a useful function. And, of course, it’s a great personal story, well told.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Like Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” James Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” presents a glossy, manipulative but affecting portrait of a brilliant man struck, but not struck down, by a terrible malady—in the case of John Nash, the protagonist of Howard’s film, schizophrenia, and in that of Stephen Hawking, the focus of this one, motor-neuron disease. There’s even a strong woman who stands with each man—in Nash’s case his wife Alicia (a role that won an Oscar for Jennifer Connelly), and here Hawking’s first wife Jane (Felicity Jones).

Each film also showcases a masterful lead performance. Russell Crowe did some of his finest work as Nash, and now Eddie Redmayne is equally, if not more, impressive as Hawking, given the physical demands of the role. He first appears as the Hawking of 1963, a gawky but genially grinning graduate student of cosmology at Cambridge. Socially awkward but intellectually confident, even endearingly arrogant, he’s encouraged by his tutor Dennis Sciama to test the boundaries of their discipline, and particularly the speculations about black holes propounded by Roger Penrose (Christian McKay).

Meanwhile Hawking meets Jane Wilde (Jones), a prim but sensitive girl who takes an immediate liking to the gangly young man, and the two are soon a couple despite their religious differences—she’s a believer, and he isn’t. It isn’t long, however, before his disease strikes, and given a diagnosis that predicts he will survive only two years, Hawking goes into an understandable funk, from which only Jane’s intervention saves him. And despite warnings about how difficult it will be from Hawking’s parents Isobel and Frank (Emily Watson and Simon McBurney), they marry, and eventually have three children.

The film basically juxtaposes two plot strands, one concerning Stephen and Jane’s life together, in which she emerges in many responds as courageous as he, ministering to him as he comes to be confined to a wheelchair, able to communicate aurally only through an artificial speech-generating apparatus, and the other to Hawking’s scientific work, which involves groundbreaking theories about the origin of the universe and the nature of time. The ability of Anthony McCarten’s script—based on Jane’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity”—to elucidate the latter aspect of the picture is limited: complaints have already been raised about its fidelity to the complexity of Hawking’s thought, and its tendency to simplify things for dramatic effect. But one can certainly read Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” for a more accurate treatment of his ideas.

More problematic, from a dramatic point of view, is the film’s underplaying of the darker elements of the couple’s relationship. Hawking is eventually provided with a nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake), whose peremptory attitude seems to agree with him; and he decides to divorce Jane and marry her with what seems a brusqueness that goes pretty much dismissed. More time is given over to the family’s friendship with widowed choral director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), whom Jane will eventually wed after Hawking has broken with her. These interpersonal matters are presented with such discretion that it’s clear that McCarten and Marsh are dancing around some fairly raw realities with the cinematic version of the stiff-upper-lip attitude one sees in the depictions of Isobel and Frank Hawking, as well as many of the other secondary characters.

But Redmayne’s performance alone would be enough to compensate for far greater failings than these. He charts Hawking’s gradual physical deterioration with uncanny skill in a turn that much have been as challenging as any that Lon Chaney Sr. ever faced. But he also captures the man’s indefatigable curiosity about the way the universe works and his willingness to reconsider, and even reject, conclusions that have won him high praise when new, and perhaps better, inspirations strike him. All this is done in cinematic shorthand, of course; the film doesn’t try to depict the long succession of calculations and equations that he must have gone through to reach even a provisional hypothesis, instead suggesting that his ideas came out of some lightning inspiration. But that is, of course, the stuff of conventional biographical pictures about individuals who overcome great obstacles to achieve great things—the genre into which “The Theory of Everything” actually falls. And so good is Redmayne, who also catches Hawking’s impish sense of humor, that the result is more moving than it probably should be.

He also overshadows everyone else in the cast, that Jones is actually very strong as Jane, and Thewlis and Cox are also fine as figures who offer Hawking sympathetic support at crucial moments. Technically the picture is a lush period piece, with John Paul David’s production design and Steven Noble’s costumes, along with the lovely locations, enhanced by Benoit Delhomme’s rich cinematography and Johann Johansson’s spare but striking score.

Marsh’s film doesn’t tell you everything about Stephen Hawking. And Hawking’s story lacks the twists and uncertainties that made “A Beautiful Mind” so compelling. But thanks largely to Redmayne, it doesn’t fall into the trap of mawkishness so many such inspirational biographical pictures fail to avoid.