The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)

Posted: December 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

“The Theory of Everything” is a film that has every opportunity to be a great film, but seems to want to sabotage itself by insisting it is a romance.  I am reminded of when Clint Eastwood made “Invictus” and people were disappointed that, after years of waiting for a major film about Nelson Mandela, we were given a film about rugby.  Stephen Hawking is quite possibly the smartest human being currently alive, and his story has all the makings of a great film.  So why, then, did the filmmakers choose to make a pedestrian biopic which, while occasionally rising above the genre in isolated scenes, feels so conventional?

I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to say that more people would be interested in seeing a film featuring a love story than one about theoretical psychics.  Fine, I get that.  It just seems like such a waste to turn Hawking’s story into a boilerplate mash-up of “A Beautiful Mind”, “My Left Foot”, and “Good Will Hunting”.  I suppose Hawking’s real life story does lend itself really well to the biopic clichés, tortured genius with a debilitating disease who triumphs against all odds and all of that.  That’s no excuse.  Any screenwriter or director could compensate for that by approaching the material in any number of different ways (a non-linear structure, focusing on a single event rather than a lifetime, oral history, etc).  For whatever reason, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh wanted to go with a love story.  The film begins with Hawking (performed with an uncanny resemblance by Eddie Redmayne) meeting his future first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), and any other events in Hawking’s life, from his PhD thesis to writing “A Brief History of Time”, are largely seen through the lens of how his relationship brought about inspiration, or what was going on in his relationship while he was doing these things, or how Jane’s belief in a god clashed with Hawking’s atheism and seeming desire to kill belief in a god by explaining the universe.  When ALS, the motor-neuron disease that paralyzes the body but leaves the mind untouched, strikes Hawking, we see Jane dutifully care for him as his body deteriorates.

They have children, as the film helpfully explains that sex acts are automatic and controlled by a different system in the brain, but Jane has an emotional affair with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who works for the church choir Jane joins.  Whether the affair is consummated while Jane is married to Stephen is left ambiguous, but in real life Jane and Jonathan are married now.  Later, Stephen leaves Jane for Elaine (Maxine Peake), his live-in nurse, seemingly because she has a sense of humor and doesn’t mind that Stephen likes to thumb through Penthouse magazine.

The main problem with the film is that while it insists on being a love story, the film never actually explains why or how Jane and Stephen love each other.  They clearly do, as their actions speak to that, but whether it’s a failure on Jones’s part of the writer and director’s, we never understand what Jane ever saw in Stephen.  She doesn’t seem taken with his intellect or necessarily attracted to him.  It really comes off as pity and duty, which I doubt is what the film wants us to think and is surely not what it was in real life.  Stephen’s attraction could be chalked up to him being an awkward science nerd and Felicity Jones being very attractive, but the film never adequately conveys why Jane loves Stephen.  That is a crushing flaw for a film that has chosen to be a love story.

The film does gradually improve from its rather bland first act.  As the ALS progresses, we get harrowing scenes of Stephen losing the ability to feed himself, or sitting in the bath and trying to move his fingers, or trying to ascend a staircase.  The film does an admirable job of showing what a hell it must be to find yourself trapped inside your own body.  To not be able to feed yourself, change yourself, walk, speak, or do much of anything save move your eyes and eyebrows and an index finger…many people would rather  be dead.  Now imagine the intellect and imagination and ideas in your head are much more worthy and valuable to be shared with others than most other human beings and, well, it seems like a fate worse than death.  The film may not do the best job of letting us inside Hawking’s head, but being able to observe from the outside is enough in some of these scenes to hit you pretty hard.

It’s a shame the film is never quite as powerful as we hope it to be.  Hawking is a figure I have always been keenly interested in, yet this film never moved me.  Granted, most of the second act and part of the third do move away from the clichéd pacing and sappiness of the biopic and the romantic drama, but it never quite strays far enough to soar and be the powerful, insightful, and moving film I, for one, hoped to get from a film about one of the most interesting men currently alive.  The film is good, and for those who know little-to-nothing about Hawking it’s a good crash course on the man’s life and a really dumbed-down layman’s explanation of his theory and life’s work, but is supremely disappointing for not being more than that.  A film about Hawking could have been so much more, and instead of seeing the film I wanted to see, I’m stuck reviewing the movie these filmmakers chose to make.  The final scene, in which a divorced Stephen and Jane visit Buckingham Palace upon invitation from the queen, reeks of sappiness as they look upon their three children and marvel at what they have created together. Gag me with a spoon.  Seriously?

The film is good enough, I guess.  Redmayne’s largely physical performance as Hawking deserves much praise.  The cinematography is sometimes quite good, though other times the color palette was much too unrealistic for my taste (a few scenes are all-blue or all-tan in a distracting fashion).  Some scenes, such as when a doctor first informs Hawking about his disease, are shot in an uncomfortable and unconventional fashion that make you wish the filmmakers had done more of the film like that.  This is a fine enough film.  But oh, how it is disappointing that they chose to make the Nicholas Sparks version of Hawking’s life.  B-

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