January 7, 2015 Leave a comment
While studying Cosmology at Cambridge University, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) runs into Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) at a house party with his classmates. He and Jane begin dating, but both their relationship and his studies suffer a setback when Stephen is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just two years to live. Jane, however, refuses to give up on him, and soon they are married with children. Stephen also resumes his work, graduating and remaining on at Cambridge as an Honourary Fellow to study the origins of time. As Stephen’s condition deteriorates and his workload increased, Jane seeks help and companionship from her choirmaster, Jonathon Jones (Charlie Cox), while advances in speech generation software lead to Stephen spending more and more time with his nurse, Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake).
Basically in some form of development since 1988, when screenwriter Anthony McCarten was inspired by Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, The Theory of Everything didn’t really take shape until he had read Jane’s side of the story over a decade later. After all, as impressive and influential as Hawking’s theories and counter-theories have undoubtedly been, they are only half of an even greater story: as the Professor strove to further science, Stephen sought to beat it. Despite being told that he would be lucky to see 1965, Hawking is still alive today — and what a life he has lived. Two marriages, three children and countless honours and awards later, Hawking is one of the most popular and prodigious scientists working today — having done wonders for disability outreach, experienced zero gravity aboard a Vomit Comet and appeared on both The Simpsons and Futurama.
No film was ever going to do his accomplishments — both personal and professional — complete justice, but director James Marsh gives it his best shot. He’s hired an impressive cast, and between them Redmayne and Jones carry not only the film but the weight of responsibility that comes with representing living subjects. Redmayne arguably has the more difficult job, required as he is to not only mimic Stephen’s progressive disability but convey the necessary emotion too. It’s an incredibly physical performance, and one that is as much about what he can’t do as it is about what he can. That said, Jones does tremendous work as Jane, the actress never letting you forget how important a role the one-time Mrs Hawking played in her husband’s life, or how much of that work was taken for granted. She’s as effervescent as ever in their earlier scenes together at Cambridge, but beautifully conveys the selflessness and sacrifices necessary to support her other half. It weights heavily not just on her shoulders but her very soul; and you can really feel the burden.
And yet, for the towering strength of those central performances and the respect afforded to the true story there is something lacking from The Theory of Everything. Bookended by scenes at Buckingham Palace where Stephen and Jane reunited to receive an honour from the Queen (and ending with the fact that Hawking then went on to refuse his knighthood, for unexplained political reasons) the film never really feels like a complete story — the choice of beginning and end feel completely arbitrary. What’s more, Marsh doesn’t do enough to distinguish his film from reality, and many of the scenes — particularly those in auditoriums and lecture theatres — don’t feel cinematic at all. It’s a peculiar film, and one that never truly justifies itself as an isolated narrative in its own right. Unlike Hawking’s scientific work, The Theory of Everything lacks purpose and falls short of making any significant conclusions. This may be intentional, perhaps as a comment on the disorder of human relationships against the structure of atomic or sub-atomic particles but it’s unsatisfying regardless. And that’s not to suggest that Marsh is immune to melodrama either: his decision to inter-cut Stephen’s hospitalisation with pneumonia with Jane and Jonathan’s first entanglement feels cheap and intrusive.
Although undoubtedly impressive, The Theory of Everything never quite surpasses its central performances. This doesn’t feel like the definitive telling of the Hawking story — either Hawking. Only time will tell what happens next.