'The Theory of Everything'
Someone had to eventually make a Stephen Hawking bio-pic. The renowned scientist is just too famous with a story that checks too many of the right boxes. Now that movie is here and it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Thankfully, at least director James Marsh was put in charge to ensure that the cheese goes down as painlessly as possible with a few moments of striking beauty.
Eddie Redmayne stars as the legendary physicist and the story picks up right as he’s starting his PHD. This was the time when Hawking would conceive his most groundbreaking theories and also be struck by his most unfortunate afflictions. While that material is certainly covered in the movie, it’s not really the focus. You see, it was during this fateful period that Hawking also met his first wife Jane (Felicity Jones), and given that the film was based on her autobiography about her time loving and caring for Hawking, that tends to flavor the proceedings above all else. Sure, we see Hawking’s eyes expand while uncovering previously untold secrets of the universe and his body collapse thanks to an incurable disease, but the film always folds back onto his heart and how Jane made it beat. Cornball stuff to be sure, yet also the type of thing on which bio-pics are built, and this one is a very conventional entry in that canon.
That’s both good and bad. It will make the movie a crowd-pleaser and pretty much guarantee its place among the 2014 awards contenders. Some of that is justified. Redmayne is absolutely extraordinary in the lead role and deserves all the praise and accolades he’ll receive. He maps out Hawking’s physical disintegration with heartbreaking naturalism and relatability. Eventually, he must play the role essentially frozen in a single expression. He not only mimics Hawking personally, he never fails to communicate the pains, thoughts and emotions his character experiences.
Jones is strong as well in a less showy role, kind of like Tom Cruise in ‘Rain Man’. Together they’re an impressive team who chart their character arcs over decades. Everyone else on screen is essentially there as a sounding board. For the most part, Hawking’s brilliant theories are set aside. The movie positions Hawking not as a groundbreaking scientist, but as an inspiration who personifies the triumph over adversity. This approach isn’t necessarily untrue, but it’s a depressingly easy avenue for the movie to take.
Although the script hits all the obvious emotional beats in a way that could have easily been a Lifetime movie, director James Marsh (‘Man on Wire’) is talented enough to make it feel cinematic. In the scenes in which he’s allowed to dabble in Hawking’s science, he comes up with some rather beautiful and brilliant ways to visualize the theories in a manner that suggests the better and more complicated movie that never was. Likewise, while the movie acknowledges the womanizing that broke up his first (and then second) marriage, it’s glossed over in sweet niceties. ‘The Theory of Everything’ presents only the most inspiring aspects of Hawking’s life and ignores the darkness. That’s a shame, because there’s a far deeper, darker, more fascinating and better movie about Stephen Hawking that could have been made. However, the chances of anyone ever making the ‘Raging Bull’ of Stephen Hawking bio-pics is unlikely, so I suppose this is as good as we’ll ever see.
‘The Theory of Everything’ is a perfectly nice and pleasant little movie. It knows what it has to be and hits all the notes as an Oscar-bait crowd pleaser. It’s a movie about a complicated physicist that your aunt who struggles with basic arithmetic could understand, and I suppose in some small, sad way there’s some value in that. The most unfortunate aspect of the film for anyone genuinely fascinated in Hawking is that this story has already been told cinematically about as well as possible in Errol Morris’ brilliant 1991 documentary ‘A Brief History of Time‘. That doc fused Hawking’s theories and tragic life story in just as moving a manner, while allowing the material to unfold through a mix Hawking’s own words and Morris’ transcendent visual flourishes. It also came right at the peak of Hawking’s fame and cultural significance.
‘A Brief History of Time’ will always been the definitive Stephen Hawking movie, so ‘The Theory of Everything’ exists only for those who want to see the same story in broad, simple and sentimental strokes. That’s why it was made, that’s how it was made, and if you take the movie on its own terms, it works. Expecting anything more was just unrealistic.