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Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed by: James Marsh

Premise: A biographical story about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones).

What Works: The central issue of The Theory of Everything is Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his wife and their mutual struggle with Hawking’s motor neuron disease. As depicted in the film, Stephen Hawking met Jane while he was working on a doctorate in physics and she was studying literature. Early on in their relationship, Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, which caused gradual loss of muscle movement and resulted in Hawking confined to a wheelchair and only able to speak through a computer. The filmmakers capture the difficulties of living and working with a debilitating disease; the strongest moments in The Theory of Everything are those depicting the Hawking’s struggle to adjust to a new normal, learning to accept limitations, and combating the fatigue that inevitably results from the daily grind. This works as well as it does because the filmmakers smartly stage the action to amplify the family’s challenges and because the two central actors give terrific performances. Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking and it’s a finely tuned performance. This role is fraught with problems since Hawking is both a famous person and disabled. Portrayals of famous people, especially those as familiar and ubiquitous as Stephen Hawking, always risk becoming an imitation or a caricature as seen in skits on Saturday Night Live, and portrayals of people with disabilities always run the risk of slipping into gross pantomime; the hunched posture and slurred speech can easily make the disabled person a figure of fun. What is exceptional about Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is that he retains Hawking’s humanity and does so even while the means of expressing that humanity gradually contract. Redmayne is paired with Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking and like Redmayne she has a tricky part. Jane bears the brunt of caring for her husband and children, a responsibility that becomes overwhelming. This part could easily come across whinny or self-absorbed but Jones evades that and portrays a woman who carries out her promise to her family even while she struggles with it.   

What Doesn’t: The Theory of Everything was adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen and in some ways the filmmakers are too reverential toward their subject. Everything about the portrayal of the Hawkings feels overly careful especially in dealing with the difficult or unconventional parts of their marriage. While not quite a hagiography, The Theory of Everything is, at best, indirect when it depicts potentially unflattering aspects of their lives. But the key flaw of The Theory of Everything, like most biographical pictures, is its lack of focus. A lot of biographical films struggle to unify their parts into a cohesive whole and they often come across as a series of disconnected historical anecdotes. This is especially true of the way A Theory of Everything deals with physics. The picture does not effectively dramatize the ways in which Hawking’s physical limitations may have impacted his work nor does it qualify the impact and importance of his theories. This is a shame since one of Hawking’s gifts was his ability to present scientific theories in a way that was accessible to the public. In fact, filmmaker Errol Morris adapted Hawking’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time into a well-received documentary released in 1992, and Morris’ film did that much better. As The Theory of Everything continues, the domestic and scientific content continue to diverge and in its ending the movie does not come to much of a conclusion. 

Bottom Line: The Theory of Everything is sufficient as a piece of entertainment and it features very impressive performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones but it falls short of capturing what was so remarkable about Stephen Hawking’s life and work.

Episode: #521 (December 14, 2014)