The Theory of Everything (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, Maxine Peake
Director: James Marsh
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten (based on the book, "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen", by Jane Hawking)
Review published November 5, 2014
Although this story is the matter of public record, I'll warn you anyway that the following review may contain some spoilers for those who prefer to go into biopics with as little knowledge as possible.
While many people know who Stephen Hawking (Redmayne, Les Miserables) is, in appearance and his newfound voice if not the details of his actual work as a cosmologist, not many people know about his personal life story, especially in regard to his romantic relationships. The Theory of Everything, based in part on the Jane Hawking memoir, "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen", seeks to tell Hawking's story about his postgraduate days at Cambridge starting in 1963 in which he would meet his first wife, Jane Wilde (Jones, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and their subsequent romance, as well as the beginnings of his affliction with motor neurone disease, which some call ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease. The prognosis was not good in those days, with Hawking given an estimated two years to live. Undaunted, and already in love, Jane determined to continue to love him despite the death sentence and diminishing ability to function for himself.
The Theory of Everything is directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim), from an adaptation by Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero, Via Satellite), who spent about eight years in discussion with Jane Hawking to finally get her to sign over the rights to her story. McCarten delivers a good deal of welcome levity in between the heartbreak, and is able to take a 30 year marriage and distill character arcs down to a few fundamental scenes that say a great deal about the ups and downs of the Hawking marriage.
Perhaps the most kudos for the film should go to the quality of the acting by Eddie Redmayne, who not only had to give us a believable pre-MND Hawking performance, which is not generally well known, but also the many various stages of Hawking's condition over the years, through slurred speech and inability to move, until he finally mostly learned to communicate through use of his eyebrows. I'm uncertain how accurate it all is, but it is certainly very believable, and never feels showy. Reportedly, Redmayne spent weeks watching videos of Hawking, talking to real-life patients with similar afflictions, and worked with the choreographer Alexandra Reynolds, who crafted the zombie movements in World War Z, in order to get the physicality of the movements fluid and believable. Eventually, you'll feel you're watching Stephen Hawking, and not Eddie Redmayne, which is the real mark of a genuinely great performance.
Stephen Hawking's story is definitely an inspiration on many levels, especially in his ability to overcome adversity and continue to thrive as a great scientific thinker for our generation. Perhaps as equally impressive is the story of Jane Hawking, who remained deeply committed to a man she had every reason to abandon in their dating days in order to find happiness and a sense of normalcy elsewhere, instead of the very difficult life ahead. Not only did she cater to his immense day-to-day needs, but also raised three children without much of his assistance, and even continued her education to boot.
The film looks great, as you would expect of something that is likely striving for Oscar accolades. Perhaps some of it feels a bit overdone, such as an early courtship scene in which Stephen and Jane attend the May Ball in which there is such romanticized eye candy as black lights, fireworks and other such sparklies -- who wouldn't fall in love right then and there? As much of Stephen's work has to do with time and space, there are frequent allusions to both as characters climb spiral staircases, twirl each other playfully, and cameras move in clockwise fashion. Gorgeous shots of the English campuses, suburbs and rural areas are shot in idyllic fashion by Johann Johannson (Wicker Park, Prisoners). It's a delightfully pretty movie.
Not everything is a fairy tale. Life is messy, and certainly these lives are more challenging than most. The film dabbles with possibilities of Jane perhaps finding another lover, something never shown consummated in the film, while Stephen would later form a close bond with his nurse (Peake, Run & Jump), who would later become his second wife. Some may find aspects of this unsavory, but Marsh and McCarten handle some of the more objectionable aspects of this with a light touch, knowing they are traversing a mine field that could undermine the love story they are trying to delicately build. Everything is implied rather than shown, and some might not get what's going on at all, which may be a source of frustration in trying to understand these characters as people instead of figures used to make a crowd-pleasing movie.
The gloss may be a bit thick, and the characters and their story oversimplified, but, ultimately, The Theory of Everything is a solid biopic that should generate some Oscar buzz, no doubt because that's what it was built to achieve. In the end, we learn quite a bit about Stephen Hawking that we never knew, and yet this very private man remains a fascinating enigma. Like the black holes he studies, the closer you get to him, the more you're sucked in.
©2014 Vince Leo