When I walked out of the Avon after watching The Theory of Everything, I was giddy with emotion. My heart warm and eyes teary, I couldn’t wait to put pen to paper and gush about this beautiful ode to one of the brightest minds alive.
But when I actually sat down to write this review, I ran into major writer’s block. My immediate emotional reaction had speedily dissipated and, I realized, had left behind nothing substantial, for there was nothing in the film that had provoked me enough to leave a lasting impression. The Theory of Everything, I concluded, is an inspiring but curiously unmemorable film.
This is not to say that this is an entirely insignificant film. What makes it noteworthy is that The Theory of Everything is not the life story of one of the most celebrated theoretical physicists of our time. The Theory of Everything is the story of a relationship between a genius, who has fought a debilitating disease to perform groundbreaking work in physics and cosmology, and a woman who dedicated a large portion of her life to helping him survive.
Therein lies the movie’s strength—and one of its few deviations from the conventions of the male-genius-biopic genre. The Theory of Everything, which chronicles the 30-year marriage between renowned scientist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking, is as much a woman’s story as it is a man’s story.
Directed by James Marsh and written by Anthony McCarten, the film starts in 1963, with Hawking’s days in Cambridge as a postgraduate studying cosmology. The young Stephen, played by a magnificent Eddie Redmayne, combines awkward, winning charm with casual brilliance. In a scene reminiscent of innumerable films about science prodigies, he shows up late to class and nonchalantly turns in a train timetable, on the back of which he has successfully solved homework problems deemed impossible by the professor.
At a college party, he runs into Jane (Felicity Jones), a pretty, bright, and devoutly religious humanities undergrad. Rendered palpably on screen, in soft-focus and sepia, is the instant, crackling chemistry between the two, from which the entire film draws its warmth and life.
Not long after their romance takes off, 21-year-old Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, of recent ice-bucket-challenge fame. Given two years to live, Stephen descends into despair, until Jane snaps him out of it, insisting on marrying him in spite of the difficult road ahead. In an affecting scene, Jane declares to Stephen’s father with quiet courage and conviction: “We are going to fight this together. All of us.”
It is the tale that follows—of Stephen’s growing scientific achievement and the parallel degeneration of his body, of Jane’s painstaking efforts in service of her three children and a husband who needs constant care, and of the slow disintegration of their marriage—that forms the most compelling part of the narrative; it documents the struggles of an extraordinary couple striving to sustain an ordinary life.
It helps that the lead performances, too, are everything but ordinary. Eddie Redmayne gives an astonishing and near-perfect rendition of Hawking, fully deserving of the Academy Award nomination it is gathering buzz for. His visceral transformation from a clumsy, bicycle-riding young boy to a completely immobile, wheelchair-bound man is an incredible feat of empathy; at no point does the slow contortion of his limbs or his slurring speech seem studied or artificial. At the same time, he maintains the delineation between Hawking’s fast-decaying body and vibrant spirit. Throughout the onscreen progression of his illness, even when he is rendered mute and must use a speech synthesizer to speak, he retains the twinkle of wonder in his eyes and the slight twitch of mischief in his smile.
Felicity Jones’ subtle, underplayed performance, threatened to be overshadowed by the praise accrued by Redmayne, deserves an equal and important mention. In its second act, the film gently shifts its spotlight to Jane, revealing the untold story of sacrifice behind the public tale of triumph over hardship, while never losing its focus on Stephen and his exceptional journey. Stephen’s yearning for an illusory “normal” life places a crushing burden on Jane. His refusal of outside help implies that Jane must run their house single-handedly, relegating her own scholarly goals and personal desires to the margins. When finally, Stephen agrees to have a local church choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer (Charlie Cox), help around the house, Jane struggles with burgeoning romantic feelings for the new entrant into their household. Here, Jones’ performance is a marvelous blend of feistiness and restraint as she balances Jane’s despondency and inner turmoil against her fierce determination to stand by Stephen against all odds.
The lush cinematography by Benoît Delhomme (The Boy in Striped Pajamas) is a character in itself, adding layers to the emotional tones of the film. Warm, sunlit color palettes and the prolific use of soft-focus imbue the film—particularly the first, romance-centered act—with an almost ethereal glow, ascribing to the story a fairytale-like quality. Especially endearing, if not very original, is Stephen and Jane’s wedding sequence, presented as a grainy, handheld video.
Both the camerawork and the direction, however, have the tendency to overdo things. The abundant use of tinted colors comes off occasionally as Instagrammy. Moreover, the movie is cluttered with extremely on-the-nose visual metaphors. Stephen attends a seminal lecture by Roger Penrose on singularity in black holes and is fascinated; the next shot is a close-up of froth swirling in Stephen’s coffee cup, simulating the diagram from the previous scene. In another scene, Stephen, sweater stuck over his head as he waits for Jane, watches fire crackle in the fireplace and suddenly arrives at the concept of Hawking radiation – the idea that black holes radiate energy. It’s as if Marsh doesn’t trust that his audience gets it.
“On-the-nose” encapsulates my biggest gripe with The Theory of Everything. A sense of overt cinematic orchestration permeates the film, and robs it of plausibility: Every dialogue seems too scripted to be organic, every action and interaction tuned precisely to elicit just the right emotional reaction. In the concluding sequence, after Stephen receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the now-separated Hawkings gaze at their frolicking children, and Stephen observes: “Look at what we made.” It is a moment of pure, film fantasy designed to tug at the heartstrings, almost too perfect to be real.
Part of the problem stems from the film’s unwavering niceness, for the lack of a better word. There is not a single hint of malice or negativity in this sugary-sweet, nostalgia-fest. Every conflict, including the dissolution of the Hawkings’ marriage, is skimmed over without any true exploration of the people involved; every character in the film is an exceedingly good person, as if the film were too afraid to tarnish reputations by depicting humans realistically. Even the scene in which Stephen indicates to Jane that he is leaving her for his nurse (Maxine Peak) is soaked in romanticism, and is bereft of any trace of acrimony. This is jarring, especially because Jane, whose 2007 memoir this film is based on, has expressed how bitter and despondent she was in the last few years of their marriage, claiming that by then her role with her husband consisted of “telling him he was not God.”
In order to be memorable, a film so conventional in form must bring us content that is fresh and thought provoking—and that is where The Theory of Everything fails. After watching this film, there is little I know about Stephen Hawking beyond the clichés of the male geniuses of Hollywood: an awkward, precocious young man, far ahead of his peers, who beat impossible odds to change the way we think about the world. I would have liked to gain insight into the man’s inner life and personality—to see him up close in all his fully fleshed and flawed humanity, which the film’s careful, polite and therefore detached treatment of its characters precludes.
First published in Post-Magazine, December 3, 2014. Illustrated by Nellie Robinson.