There are a myriad of interesting things about Stephen Hawking, so why make a film highlighting the most banal?
Disclaimer: Warning!! Before you read this review, let’s set some ground rules. Film criticism can be a science — not an exact science, but it is possible to quantify shot design, technique, score, casting, etc. That being said, not every script will “sing” with every viewer. Your favorite film – that you love inexplicably – might be the movie that makes me question the need for the medium to continue. Opinions vary, as the old adage goes: “I may not know art, but I know what I like!” It is with this in mind that the following review should be read.
Based on Jane Hawking’s book Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything chronicles the courtship and marriage of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones). When the two meet, they have very little in common but are somehow drawn to one another. As his career rises, and Hawking finally finds a direction for his work, and for his life, he is diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease). Given a prognosis of two years, the couple is determined to make the most of it, and Stephen sets out to prove that all life can be explained by one, simple mathematical formula.
Overall, the James Marsh (Project Nim, Man on Wire) direction gives the material some legs. The beginning of both the film and Stephen and Jane’s relationship is hazy, as if shot through a diffused lens, as a dream of the past might be. A fairytale. A particularly interesting theme of spirals in the shots of a staircase and cream being poured into coffee juxtapose Hawking’s early black hole theory. Color scheme changes signify a passage of time and the depth of the Hawkings’ shifting love. The editing, however, is jarring. Some scenes seem just thrown together as if we’re privy to a rough cut. There is no real rhyme or reason that I could gather for the structure; I understand that the script is based on Jane Hawking’s book, but even if the narrative spans their relationship, the final scene sews nothing up nor seems to fit the overall story. It’s simply a stopping point, perhaps because the run time had reached two hours.
The cast approaches their characters earnestly, Redmayne especially. It does not hurt that the young man shares a striking resemblance with Hawking, but that is truly the least of it. There is always something behind his eyes, an unspoken observance of the human existence. Though he communicates so much with his body language, you’re never quite sure if he’s being completely authentic or mirroring characters around him in order to fit into societal norms. It would be no real surprise to see Redmayne’s name thrown around during award’s season. Further remarkable is how Redmayne’s subtle performance does not succumb to a caricature when the film so busies itself with high emotion. Comparisons to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot are not far off base. Harry Lloyd is superb as Hawking’s lifelong friend, Brian; in fact, their friendship is a far more fascinating study, one that the film would have benefited from nurturing. Felicity Jones’s Jane chews the worst of the dialogue – doing so admirably – when she has to spout lines like, “I know what you all think, that I don’t look like a terribly strong person, but I love him. And he loves me. And we’re going to fight this illness together.” Yowza. She’s best as the young ingénue version of Jane in the opening of the film, as her age does not really allow her to tackle the aging Mrs. Hawking, makeup not withstanding. Rounding out the supporting cast, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, and Simon McBurney each punch their timecards effortlessly.
Now for the crux of the thing, the script. Basically, The Theory of Everything is a sentimental snuff film that borders on gratuitous. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay focuses not on the relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking but on Hawking’s ALS and how his illness affects those around him. What a stalwart wife Jane was! How difficult it must have been to deny her growing feelings for another man! Love triangles, doubting doctors, and the couple against all odds. I am not suggesting a film about Stephen Hawking should ignore his illness; however, when people in the film look on Redmayne’s Stephen, their pity — even when the man is proving unfathomable theorems in front of them — shines through. Every scene is about strength against science, religion against science, love against science. Should a story about one of the most famous scientists in the history of forever shame the man in such a way?
I’ve read Jane Hawking’s book, the one this film purports to represent, and while her ideas at times varied from her former husband’s, she never disrespected his ideas in the way the movie does. Instead of chronicling the Hawkings’ love story, we jump from their meeting, a small amount of time together, and suddenly, it’s love (and tragedy) all at once. We never get to see or fully understand why Jane loves Stephen; sure, she seems intrigued by the man from the very beginning. However, there is no real profession of love beyond her words; it’s simply an immediate fact. This possibly comes from the fact that Jane – though the author of the work from which the film is based – is not a fully explored character. We know she’s studying Romance languages, art and poetry…and that’s it. We really only identify with the fact that this is Stephen’s wife…and her whole life is wrapped up in him. This is possibly on purpose, as if he gave her life meaning, but it never feels earned, if that’s the case, for her to stray from him emotionally.
Theory is a treatise on a complicated man that refuses to explore his mind beyond simple surface or legend. What a brave film that might have been! Hawking is a genius, a visionary, with astounding ideas and experiences; he has a family and admirers on every shore…but here, he’s ALS. Every emotional minute is heightened by the score, as if it is the most important of the whole one hundred and twenty. People speak in hushed tones and hiding tears in a very English way, both for comedic purposes and prideful representation. Hawking’s disease is paraded like a Pinocchio dancing with strings. Every deteriorating muscle is another defeat, played for sympathy, begging for your precious tears.
You might wonder why you saw so many varying trailers, as if it were several dissimilar movies. Simply put, the film suffers from an identity disorder, one of its worst crimes. Sometimes a first-person narrative, other times an omniscient biopic, the audience never has the opportunity to live in one perspective without questioning its authenticity. We just flow through the timeline of illness, what it does to the body and to those who love that body.
Verdict: If you like sudsy, emotional manipulation, or as colleague Chase Branch puts it: “Films designed to make your mom have a sob,” The Theory of Everything might just be for you. If, however, you prefer deeper character dramas, ones that explore layered stories, complex characters, and difficult choices, Marsh’s film might not be for you. It’s the film version of stale sponge cake. A Beautiful Mind treated John Nash and his illness with delicate care to much better results. For those looking for a fresh perspective on the examination of love, might I suggest viewing Felicity Jones in Drake Doremus’s splendid Like Crazy? Anyone looking to confirm Eddie Redmayne’s enormous talent could also spend a little time with My Week with Marilyn – also (sort of) a biopic, though a far braver one.
True Opinion: D+.