From the Archives: The Theory of Everything

Originally posted 2015 | Review by Meadhbh McGrath

It’s been a bumper year for the prestige British biopic, and 2015 kicks off with another glossy piece of awards bait, based on the life of Stephen Hawking. The Theory of Everything is adapted from Hawking’s first wife Jane’s memoir Travelling to Infinity, and consequentially offers more of a study of their marriage and the effect of Hawking’s illness on their relationship than a portrait of Hawking as physicist. This also leaves the audience confused as to who the real subject of this film is — Hawking, or his wife?

As the film opens in 1963 in the lush setting of Cambridge University, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is rebranded as a charming, flirtatious romantic lead, and a genius slacker who scrawls the solutions to complicated mathematical problems on the back of a train timetable. At a party, we see him approach Jane (Felicity Jones), a medieval poetry student and devout follower of the Church of England, and enjoy the dazzling chemistry between them in the wonderful early scenes — in particular, one dreamily romantic moment that takes place on a bridge strewn with fairy lights during the May Ball. Considering all the audience knows is about to come, these scenes are crucial to convince us of the immediacy and intensity of their initial feelings for one another.

Their wedding and first few years together rush past in a grainy, faux-home-movie blur, and it becomes difficult to ignore the film’s flaws. While undeniably well-acted, it falls into a black hole of its own making by checking off all the key moments in Hawking’s life, without digging any deeper or taking any risks. The result is a frustrating, bland and ultimately unsatisfying film that attempts to render a brilliant mind in simple, digestible terms. The Theory of Everything is the story of a remarkable man, told in the most conventional way imaginable. It’s particularly disappointing given that the film is directed by James Marsh, known for his vivid, Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire (2008).

The viewer is left wishing that the rest of the film was as deeply affecting as his performance

Hawking’s work is compressed into a few dramatic mealtime scenes in which his theories are described using a potato and pea on a fork, the swirl of cream in a cup of coffee, and spilled beer foam on a pub table. The film bends over backwards to make the science accessible to the layman, by appealing to the religious concern of what his work has to say about the existence of God. There are a number of earnest discussions about whether Stephen believes in God, as his wife does, as the science most effectively operates as a foil in their love story.

The film is somewhat redeemed by its two spectacular leads. Redmayne is transcendent as Hawking, delivering a layered, complex, and truly visceral performance as we watch his face and body distort and buckle, leaving him to communicate his character’s feelings almost exclusively with his eyes. The viewer is left wishing that the rest of the film was as deeply affecting as his performance. Although hampered by a fairly flat character, Jones is similarly impressive and a perfect match for Redmayne. She is devastatingly convincing as her role as sole carer for both Hawking and their children takes its toll.

Shortly after Hawking is first hunched into a wheelchair, the film retreats from his point of view to focus on his wife’s. The movie is honest in illustrating how their marriage leaves both of them feeling unfulfilled, but gets lost in its depiction of Jane’s relationship with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a kindly choirmaster who also helps care for Stephen and their children. As Jane starts to fall for this incredibly sweet man, it’s unclear who we’re supposed to be rooting for. It’s confusing enough that Marsh jerks the narrative away from the alleged subject of the biopic to give us another love story, but then Stephen suddenly grows cold and cutting towards Jane. Why he chooses to leave the wonderful and devoted Jane after 25 years of marriage for a patronising woman who treats him like a child is never explained, and is utterly baffling. The most perplexing moment comes when Jane sleeps with her choirmaster for the first time on a camping trip, and we see Hawking have a near-fatal seizure in an opera house. The scenes are intercut in such a way that suggests Jane caused this attack, as though she is being punished for her infidelity.

After a flood of big-budget biopics about the struggles of great men, a film that acknowledged the struggles of a long-suffering wife living in her husband’s shadow seemed like a refreshing new take. However, the film isn’t quite brave enough to stick to her perspective, and in wavering between the two without committing to either, leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied. For a film so focused on their marriage, The Theory of Everything only momentarily considers the possibility that Hawking and Jane had tacitly agreed to an open marriage, instead choosing to gloss over this part of their relationship, like many other parts of Hawking’s life. Although the film attempts to explore the complexities of love and marriage, it skirts around many important questions without raising them, let alone answering them.


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