THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Review: Behind Every Great Man …
When I was a junior in high school, I excelled at chemistry. I don’t know why, really; it was just something I was good at. When it came time to choose classes for my senior year, I thought, “Hey – physics! Same teacher as chem and everything! How hard can it be?”
Oops. It was pretty hard. I did okay, but it was clear early on that I would never be the next Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist who is part of the focus of the film The Theory of Everything.
At the film’s start, Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a student of sciences at Cambridge when, at a party, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a student of arts. Opposites prove to attract and the two fall madly in love. Despite his opposition, Jane stands by Stephen when he is soon diagnosed with a form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that slowly destroys almost all his muscles, crippling him to the point of needing 24-hour care.
His mind, however, isn’t a muscle, and his work in cosmology, both as a doctoral student and a doctor, earns him global notoriety. This fame takes its toll on the marriage, though, as Jane must sacrifice her studies and her life to not only be Stephen’s wife and mother to their three children, but also to act as his manager and his nurse. His commitment to his work and his physical limitations leave Jane lonely and vulnerable to the temptations of an extramarital relationship. The same is also said of her genius husband.
Based on Jane Hawking‘s autobiography “Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen,” The Theory of Everything is a film foremost about the relationship between the Hawkings. Thanks to the strength of the performances of the leads, the story is wonderful in its early stages.
Redmayne plays the young Hawking with delicately measured parts shyness and awkwardness. He’s never the stereotypical nerd, incapable of functioning normally around a real girl – although there’s this hint that he could be were he not invigorated by his love for her. It’s as if she is the reason for his confidence, and were she anyone else, he would become that stereotype.
Jones, on the other hand, is grace and charm and an absolute joy to watch, lighting up the screen as the art major who is unintimidated by the intellectual might of her love interest. She might not understand all the science, but she understands Stephen’s passion for it, and that’s what makes her so great.
Together, their chemistry is a textbook example of an irresistible force.
The force of story continues in the early stages of Stephen’s disease. His frustration by it and her support of him in dealing with it – even early in their relationship – is strong. And the two actors certainly rise to the physicality of the circumstances. Jones is great in support, but this is where Redmayne peaks in the film. I am fortunate to not know firsthand if Redmayne got the general physical degradation of ALS “right,” but it was certainly transfixing to watch.
Also well-integrated into the story is the actual science itself. Director James Marsh incorporates just enough of it to offer some cerebral razzle-dazzle without getting lost in formulas and equations (or force-feeding it in an effort to prove some greater intellectualism, like another science-flavored film from this year, Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar).
It’s at the point in the tale when Stephen’s disease becomes more crippling to him and a greater burden to Jane that the film loses the magic it had in the first act.
The physical challenges presented to Redmayne become greater, which require him to shed the subtlety he masterfully presented earlier. While the physical effects of ALS might be presented accurately, and while Redmayne disappears into the role, there is a palpable shift from how Hawking handles the disease to how the disease affects Hawking. For the intimate tale this wants to be, the approach doesn’t fit well.
More disappointing, though, is Jane’s story. She goes from being heralded (in the story) as the great woman behind the man to being portrayed as the overburdened wife and mother who is tired of living in the shadows yet won’t do what’s right, only what brings her comfort. This isn’t meant to demean her circumstance; it’s meant to suggest that this is the tale of a remarkable couple presented as something pedestrian, something you can find on cable any night of the week. A woman like this and a couple like this deserve better treatment.
Stephen’s path is presented as equally as common (and blisteringly accelerated), missing completely the chance to explore how a person of his fame, yet physical limitation, manages something like infidelity.
The entire film gets terrific treatment, though, from cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, whose visuals are (like the film itself) striking early on, but quite strong throughout.
If the acting tandem of Redmayne and Jones is the film’s irresistible force, then the fading presentation of the story of The Theory of Everything is the immovable object that that force has the unfortunate circumstance to meet. I don’t know the outcome of a meeting like that in the realm of physics, but in the realm of film, it isn’t pretty.