The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Emily Watson, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Charlotte Hope, Adam Godley, Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Hugh O’Brien, Karol Steele, Scott Plumridge, Simon McBurney. Written by Anthony McCarten.
Two scenes I did not expect to see in a biopic about Stephen Hawking:
- Hawking, immobilized in wheelchair, rambunctiously playing with son in living room. He bumps into an end table and knocks over a vase. Wife Jane looks on and scowls. “Who’s going to clean that up?”
- Jane Hawking furiously vacuuming the living room rug and having a minor breakdown, in 1960s Betty Draper housewife fashion. Yes, the hardships of raising a family and maintaining a household with a husband and father immobilized by ALS are represented by furious vacuuming.
The Theory of Everything, I was surprised to learn, is not so much Stephen Hawking as it is about his first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, played by Felicity Jones. It’s based on her memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which has been adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten (Death of a Superhero), and directed by James Marsh, a documentary filmmaker who made the excellent Man on Wire.
I’m sure Jane Wilde Hawking is a wonderful person in real life, but I slowly grew to dislike the character as played by Jones (and nothing against Jones, either, who bravely carries the dramatic weight of this uneven film). Here’s a movie that, in its primary dramatic arc, tries to explain why this character becomes so unhappy with living with one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.
It’s an impossible task. The Mad Men comparison is apt, with numerous 60s home-life sequences inadvertently evoking the show. TV viewers grew to intensely dislike January Jones’ Betty Draper on Mad Men, and her husband – suave and sophisticated as he is – was a philandering cheat. Go ahead, filmmakers: tell me why a life with Stephen Hawking is so terrible.
Working in the film’s favour, of course, is an incredibly controlled performance by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. In early scenes he’s a socially awkward university student, in the film’s second half he’s almost completely immobilized (but still expressive); his journey through the symptoms ALS, a condition with which doctors gave him two years to live (he’s since surpassed that by 50), is the gut-wrenching highlight of the film.
I question the tastefulness of scenes involving Stephen Hawking struggling to crawl up the stairs, or slurring his speech when making ground-breaking discoveries, but their effectiveness is undeniable. We feel so strongly for him during the course of The Theory of Everything that if you’re able to overlook or forgive the film’s other flaws, you’re likely not just to be won over – you’ll find this one of the most moving and inspirational films of the year.
Redmayne won an Oscar for his work here, and deservedly so; recalling Daniel Day Lewis’ work in My Left Foot, he exhibits an incredible amount of restraint in bringing both the character and the condition to vivid life. Nothing in the actor’s previous filmography – which includes My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables – would have suggested he was capable of something on this level.
By the way, the film seems to remind us, Stephen Hawking is also responsible for some of the greatest theories of the twentieth century, which revolutionized the way we think about the universe. While Hawking’s incredible success is duly noted by the film, the actual content of his theories is barely touched upon (apart from a pair of rather ingenious metaphors – one of which involves a box of Tide detergent). Anyone interested in those ought to check out Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary A Brief History of Time, who also offers better insight into Hawking himself than this fictionalized drama.
Hawking’s story is certainly an incredible one, and I suppose that’s what I was expecting from The Theory of Everything. The behind-the-scenes romance and drama and desperate housewife stuff pales in comparison to Hawking’s real contributions to society, and the film is so apprehensive about how it portrays these characters that we only get a vague sense of what’s going on, anyway; some viewers may not realize that Jane has left her husband for another man until end-credit text has informed them.
But don’t take my word for it. The Theory of Everything is beloved by just about everyone, earning five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and winning for Redmayne’s incredible central performance. This is a well-made film in almost every regard – Jóhann Jóhannsson’s memorable score and Benoît Delhomme’s evocative cinematography are also noteworthy – but the concept and approach simply turned me off.