October 2018
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The Theory of Everything (2014)

DIRECTOR: James Marsh

CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis


The Theory of Everything is an undistinguished biopic about a very distinguished individual.  An adaptation of the memoirs of Jane Hawking, it chronicles her marriage to her former husband Stephen Hawking and the journey of their complicated relationship amid his physical degeneration while giving the shallow basics of his theorizing about the origins of the universe.  It serves its basic purpose of showing the more personal side of a famed theoretical physicist, but there’s a feeling of skimming the surface.

When we open in 1963 Cambridge, England, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a young graduate student undecided about his field of study.  Despite his gangly physique, nerdy looks, and social awkwardness, Hawking forms a connection with Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  Though they have their differences (he’s an atheist, she’s Church of England, he’s fascinated with theoretical physics, she’s focused on Spanish medieval poetry), they fall in love.  However, their young love affair and Hawking’s future prospects are dealt a devastating blow when he is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a degenerative motor neuron disease that leads to deteriorating motor functions and eventual almost complete paralysis, with a life expectancy of two years.  Jane’s refusal to leave him alone to wallow in self-pity drags Stephen out of the depression into which he sinks.  Despite expecting a short time together, they marry and have children.  Stephen’s condition worsens, reducing him to crutches, then a wheelchair, and finally losing the power of speech after an emergency tracheotomy, but he flourishes academically when he determines to prove the origins of the universe in what becomes known as the Big Bang Theory.  Meanwhile, Jane feels the strain of being full-time caretaker to both her increasingly immobile husband and their ever-growing brood of children, and she seeks out help, befriending a church choir director named Jonathan (Charlie Cox) who becomes a family friend, helping her care for the children and Stephen, but the situation becomes complicated when feelings develop between Jane and Jonathan.  Later, the Hawkings also employs a full-time live-in nurse (Maxine Peake), who will eventually become Stephen’s second wife.

Considering it is an adaptation of Jane’s memoirs, it’s unsurprising that she is as much and in some ways more the central character than her husband.  Significant attention is paid to Stephen’s physical deterioration, but in some ways the story is more from Jane’s perspective than Stephen’s, and The Theory of Everything focuses much less on Hawking’s theorizing than on their marriage.  Initially, Jane faces Stephen’s grim prognosis with a stiff upper lip and a determination to stand by him no matter what, but especially as she must take care not only of her husband but their ever-growing brood, she finds this easier said than done.  The movie presents a love triangle of sorts (eventually adding Stephen’s nurse Elaine) in which there’s no “villain”—Jonathan backs off until Jane seeks him out after she and Stephen’s separation—but the movie’s feel of skimming through events and the swift passage of time (events span 1963 to around 2000 without clear delineation, and without Felicity Jones seeming to age at all) leaves the complex and conflicted relationships onscreen feeling underdeveloped and the potential emotional turmoil less affecting than it might have been.  Stephen stays at somewhat of a distance, while despite more time spent on Jane’s inner life, the movie’s approach mutes its impact.  When it comes to the theories that made Hawking famous, the movie covers them in basic “greatest hits” fashion without delving into them in depth (though perhaps a heavier approach might have made that aspect of the movie difficult to follow for casual viewers).

Eddie Redmayne looks the part of Hawking, especially by the end when he’s Hawking as we know him, and convincingly portrays the beginning to end deterioration of Hawking’s motor skills, starting with shaky hands and being prone to falls and ending virtually immobile in a wheelchair and only expressive with his eyebrows and a half-smile.  Reportedly, Redmayne spent six months researching Hawking, including watching copious footage and working with a dialect coach, and meeting the man himself in preparation for the role.  Felicity Jones also met with the real Jane Hawking several times, and although Redmayne has the “showier” role, she provides an appealing, conflicted Jane.  Supporting roles include David Thewlis (as Hawking’s encouraging university professor who starts as an instructor and ends up an admirer), Charlie Cox (as the man who eventually becomes Jane’s second husband), Maxine Peake (as Hawking’s nurse and eventual second wife), Simon McBurney (as Hawking’s father), Emily Watson (as Jane’s mother), and Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones‘ Viserys Targaryen) as Hawking’s friend and college roommate.

James Marsh (whose most notable previous endeavor was the documentary Man on Wire about French high-wire walker Philippe Petit) provides a jumping-off point for anyone wanting to know more about the personal life of Stephen Hawking, but this is by no means a definitive or innovative cinematic biography.  Stephen Hawking may be an extraordinary mind, but The Theory of Everything remains ordinary.

* * 1/2