Review: The Theory of Everything
The biographical film has a pretty checkered history. Sometimes the real facts of a person’s life need only a little dramatic polishing to produce something truly entertaining and meaningful. Other times you can feel the filmmakers stretching to really fill out what should be a fascinating story because while the events or accomplishments may be enormously important, that doesn’t mean that they are very cinematic. Unfortunately, despite some truly wonderful and engaging elements, the new Stephen Hawking biopic too often falls into the latter category.
Perhaps this is because the script is based on the book “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” written by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane (Felicity Jones), who is also the mother of his three children. This was the second, and more warmly nostalgic, memoir she has written about her relationship with Hawking.
The film commences at the point when the two young British students first meet one another at a party at Cambridge University. Although they are shown as not having a great deal in common (he is an atheist scientist, she is a Christian who studies languages and poetry), the chemistry is immediate, with a sweet romantic relationship developing rather quickly. Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is already a startling intellect, even among his peers, and has developed an interest in the subjects which would later bring him fame and renown. His graduate instructor, as played by David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films) has recognized his great potential and helped lead him to his revolutionary thesis on black holes and time.
Where the film excels is in its early stages, working the progress of Hawking’s scientific efforts alongside his blossoming relationship with Jane. These develop at the same time as his diagnosis with the motor neuron disease (ALS) which would result in his total physical reliance on those around him, taking away his independent locomotion, making his swallowing and gross motor skills difficult, and eventually rendering him without speech. This is the version of Hawking which is strong in the public’s memory, confined to a motorized wheelchair and relying on a speech generating device to communicate. Witnessing this gradual and inexorable physical decline as performed by Redmayne is the primary interest of the film, with the details finely realized. Redmayne has received well-deserved critical acclaim for his work and it would be surprising indeed if he is not selected for one of the five available Oscar nominations for lead actor this year. Despite my reservations about the film as a whole, I would recommend “The Theory of Everything” entirely on the strength of his work in this challenging role.
Felicity Jones also impresses as the mostly saintly Jane, showing the transitions the character makes from idealistic young woman in love, to dedicated wife, assisting her husband with every little thing, to frustrated mother with her own independent needs.
Long-time fans of the now gone HBO drama Boardwalk Empire will know exactly what is coming when Jane meets Charlie Cox as Jonathan Jones, the choral director at the local church where Jane goes to get some time for herself. If he had no problem making a cuckold of gangster Nucky Thompson, why should he be concerned about a physicist in a wheelchair? By the way, Cox will be playing Matt Murdock in the coming Daredevil TV series. He’s an appealing actor and it’ll be interesting to see if he can shake off his callow countenance to play the decidedly noble and serious blind superhero lawyer.
The conflict between Hawking’s initial atheism and how it develops as his scientific pursuits continue is dabbled at in the film, but not with enough vigor to call it an important theme in the story. In the end, the concerns of the tawdry real world undercut any hope of this being an inspirational film in any sense of the word. There are no handy pat endings here, and as a story about the relationship between Hawking and Jane, that makes it a patently unsatisfying, if moving, experience. The filmmakers, perhaps wisely, decided to give us only passing information on the nature of Hawking’s extraordinary scientific writings. I may be one of few who would rather have seen a film focused on those ideas.