Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything is a capable biopic. I want to stress that word, biopic. About the courtship and marriage of Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, and Jane Wilde Hawking, the film is more interested in the complications that beset Jane and Stephen’s relationship than in Stephen’s theories about time and the universe. That is to say, the film’s more concerned with the dramatic circumstances surrounding Stephen’s scientific work than in black holes and the beginning of time, per se. Will scientists be bothered? Possibly. Will most filmgoers be disappointed? Probably not. If you want to discuss cosmology after a movie, go see Interstellar instead.

If The Theory of Everything never accomplishes more than a well-made recounting of events and experiences, it’s chiefly the fine performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones that make the film worthwhile. Having to depict Stephen’s awkward charm in youth as well as the various stages in his motor neuron disease, which afflicts voluntary muscle activity, Redmayne does a superb job. One wonders what sort of makeup was used to hold his face in its different contortions. As Stephen, Redmayne gets the conspicuous performance, but Jones is also very good as Jane. As the film and Stephen’s disability progress, Jane increasingly becomes our subjective anchor in the narrative. Most of us have no idea what it would be like to suffer from motor neuron disease, but we can more easily relate to the difficult jumble of love and frustration in caring for another person for a long time.

With a skill that complements the lead performances, Benoît Delhomme’s beautiful cinematography is preoccupied with geometric shapes, pastel colours, and soft focus. How this shapes the film’s meaning, I’m still working out. The use of odd lenses, canted angles, and peripheral framing recalls the artsy-prestige look of Tom Hooper’s films.

In the final minutes of The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh plays with time in an effort to reach for some greater meaning, but he doesn’t achieve it. For instance, Marsh replays the out-of-focus image of silhouettes against a golden background from the start of the film, which, as it is brought into focus, becomes a hallway at Buckingham Palace, where Stephen is receiving a knighthood from the Queen. Why bring us back to the beginning of the film? I don’t understand what this adds to the movie, other than making a nice circle. We are also shown a rapid sequence of events in reverse, Jane and Stephen’s relationship rewinding before our eyes back to its beginning. The sequence wonderfully generates the bittersweet tone the film is going for, and it’s a nice nod to Stephen’s early idea of theoretically reversing the expansion of the universe in order to understand it at the very start, but what does this mean in terms of their relationship? Will understanding their beginning explain the development of their love? As an artistic flourish and gesture of feeling, the sequence works, but narratively and thematically it doesn’t add up.

Perhaps some of the film’s diminished effect owes to its screenplay. The movie is based on Jane’s 2008 autobiography, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This ostensibly means that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is better informed about the private matters and intimate moments of Stephen and Jane’s lives than other biopics based on public record and supposition. We also might expect the film to sympathize more with Jane in the couple’s later difficulties and separation, but if anything the film is pretty intent to smooth over any lasting division or deep conflict between the two. Interestingly, Jane’s book is an updated edition of an earlier, and from what I understand, angrier version from 1999, and it appears that the smoothing effort has been taken up by both Jane and Stephen in recent years. Throw into the mix the fact that the film is interested in presenting Stephen’s life as inspirational, and thereby tries to diminish the unlikeable aspects of his personality and life. All this is actually pretty compelling evidence for the complexity of human relationships and the difficulty of trying to sum up a human life.

Sadly, this fine biopic about an original mind, an unpredictable life, and a remarkable love ultimately bows to its primary interest in being conventionally inspirational. But, while the film doesn’t achieve everything, it does get a lot right.

7 out of 10

The Theory of Everything (2014, UK)

Directed by James Marsh; screenplay by Anthony McCarten based on the book by Jane Hawking; starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson, Adam Godley, Christian McKay, and David Thewlis.