MOVIE REVIEW: The Theory of Everything



More likely than not, biographical films tend to chronicle more famous people over ordinary people.  Because of that, we tend to carry at least the semblance of a preconceived notion to know the subject's accomplishments, notoriety, and place in history.  What we likely don't know is the person behind the persona.  No person's life story, highlights, lowlights, and all, can fit into a cohesive two-hour slice of entertainment.  Filmmakers need to pick, choose, condense, edit, dramatize, tinker, and sugarcoat details to immortalize the person in a way that audiences can both understand and enjoy.  There are both safe and risky ways to do that.  Both have their pitfalls where something too safe is either too boring or too sugarcoated and something too risky veers to far from the truth or disgraces the essence of the person's story.

"The Theory of Everything" elected for the safe side of risk.  Adapted from "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen," the memoirs of Jane Wilde Hawking, the first wife of renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, by New Zealand playwright Anthony McCarten, the film is the second feature effort from Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Marsh ("Man on Wire").  To its credit, "The Theory of Everything" takes a decidedly different route than one would expect from a documentarian telling the life story of a world-famous scientist.

Our story begins in 1963 where Stephen Hawking, played by eclectic actor Eddie Redmayne ("My Week with Marilyn" and "Les Miserables"), is a Ph. D. student in Physics at the University of Cambridge.  As the awkwardly brilliant slacker that runs circles around his peers in the classroom while skipping lectures, Stephen is on the cusp of the inspiration that would launch his historic work.  In a "meet cute," he crosses paths with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones of "Like Crazy" and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") at a college party.  She is a Medieval literature student and devout Christian that would stand to oppose Stephen's atheist, scientific, and socialist views.  

Despite their differences and some initial distance, they fall in love, but not before a mounting health scare leads to Stephen being diagnosed with a rare early-onset case of motor neurone disease, better known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.  He is given a life expectancy of two years and warnings that his body will begin to fail him.  Seeing the short term, Jane is dedicated to helping Stephen live out his days.  By 1965, they are married and by 1970 they have two children.  Year after year, Stephen continues to deteriorate, becoming the wheelchair-bound man we all picture, yet outlive the disease and its effects.  His career flourishes and Jane is there every step of the way to help him live, communicate, and work.  With the longevity of time, though, difficulties, challenges, and distance grows between them that will make or break their bond.

As you can see from that description, we are observing Stephen Hawking, the man, more than seeing and learning about Stephen Hawking, the famous scientist, in "The Theory of Everything."  That is the aforementioned different route this film takes.  Science takes a large back seat to marriage and family, which will foster disappointment and boredom in some viewers of the film.  Once again, some of this is the nature of biographical films to take you beyond the persona and inside one's actual life beyond the public eye.  Successful biographical films balance the "greatest hits" with the "behind-the-scenes" exclusives.  In skewing so deeply towards Hawking's marriage over his science, "The Theory of Everything" lacks that successful and ideal balance.

That's not to say that what is presented in "The Theory of Everything" isn't good or worthwhile.  Quite the contrary, in fact, and more will be explained in the lessons.  The astounding lead performances from Redmayne and Jones give you a fascinating, multi-layered couple worthy of your investment of time and attention.  Eddie Redmayne is getting a great deal of Oscar attention, and rightfully so, for this transformative physical and emotional performance.  Some people will probably argue that all he had to do for half of the film was sit in a wheelchair and drool between minor facial expressions.  You would be missing the point of his acting.  The cheeky sparkle and romance in Redmayne's eyes and smiles speak volumes when his character can no longer speak.  Watch and even the skeptical will be amazed.

With the focus being on family and marriage over relativity theories and quantum mechanics, "The Theory of Everything" really belongs to Felicity Jones, even with Redmayne's extremely complicated performance.  It's through Jane's lens and heart that this story gets its roots and its impact.  This is beyond the "sad wife at home" cliche territory.  Jones gives Jane Hawking an enormous level of humanity and dignity all her own, without being a stereotypical saint.  She too deserves Oscar consideration for her work beside Redmayne.

Beyond Redmayne and Jones, there's not much else to sink your teeth into, especially with Marsh and McCarten scaling back the science.  David Thewlis has played teachers and mentors before.  Emily Watson has played stern mothers before.  Both are nice additions, but underused.  The one supporting performance that gets some room to spread a set of wings comes from Charlie Cox, the soon-to-be Netflix/Marvel "Daredevil," playing Jane's long-time friend, fellow caretaker, and future lover Jonathan Hellyer Jones.  His character is crucial to our central figure of Jane and it rises far above your typical suitor-in-waiting. 

Still, the full picture, while very well-intentioned to focus on the man over the persona, feels skewed and short on glitz representative of someone larger-than-life such as Stephen Hawking.  We get undeveloped glimpses into not only the variety of his famous work, but what drives it, because it's not his marriage or his children.  The film is missing the method and the madness.  His arrogant braggadocio is greatly massaged and softened to keep this film a love story.  That will make "The Theory of Everything" a solid "feel good" holiday release for the date crowd, but that minimizes its overall level of risk and boldness that could have come into play.  Maybe the sugarcoating spread too thick.  The literary fact-checkers can check out for a story on the film's accuracy to true history and the novel.

"The Theory of Everything" definitely deserves credit for its sweetly humane take, but it's missing the edge that would make it great.  If you're looking for that edge, seek out "Get On Up" starring Chadwick Boseman and the story of James Brown.  If music is not your cup of tea and you need an even better reclusive and formidable scientific figure than Stephen Hawking in a film with the balanced edge, go seek out "The Imitation Game," the far superior biography film, covering the life of computer pioneer Alan Turing with Benedict Cumberbatch.  Watch that film and then come back and compare it with "The Theory of Everything" and you'll see the differences.

LESSON #1: FAMILY AND LOVE ARE GREATER THAN ALL OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN LIFE-- This lesson is the absolute best thing about this film.  Plenty of people sit back and measure what matters most in their lives.  Is it your work, accomplishments, and fame or is it your love and your family?  Too many people side with the former over the latter.  Stephen has universal respect and acclaim in his field.  His name will be echoed in classrooms for decades after his time passes, but, at the end of the day, he knows (or at least the film wants you to know) that the three beautiful children he created with Jane are the best thing he will ever do in his life.  The difficult journeys of marriage and health for Stephen to be there and alive to see that through resonates more than any book, speaking engagement, endowment, or theorem.

LESSON #2: STAND BY YOUR MAN-- Because this story is adapted from and flows through Jane's account of her life and marriage, we are witnessing a wife standing by her man through thick and thin, good and bad, high and low, and all possible peaks and valleys in between.  Jane gave up and sacrificed equal, if not more, in her life than Stephen to keep their marriage and lives together.  There's nothing submissive about staying together, as the woman, without someone like Stephen for as long as she did.  That's what marriage is.  Marriage involves seeing someone through their hardships and being there for their needs.  There is love in putting someone before yourself and knowing it's important. 

LESSON #3: DEFYING EXPECTATIONS-- Stephen writes this lesson over and over in all aspects of his life.  His work defied the boundaries of his field, his peers, and, as it progressed, many of his own initial theories.  The man was and is a trailblazer.  That's one layer of defying expectations, but the greater one is, of course, his adverse health.  Given two years to live in 1964, it's 2014 and the man is still going.  ALS make take his physical body, but it cannot take his mind or his heart.  It cannot take away his wit, his creativity, or his fervor either.  Always trying in all things is a mantra to take from Stephen Hawking and this film when it comes to defying expectations.