The Theory of Everything
Anthony McCarten (Book: Jane Hawking)
Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior, Sophie Perry, Finlay Wright-Stephens, Harry Lloyd, Alice Orr-Ewing, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Lucy Chappell, Christian McKay
PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Traditional biopic structures create a challenging landscape for director James Marsh’s adaptation of a novel about the life of Stephen Hawking, considered one of the most significant scientists of the last century. The Theory of Everything doesn’t quite do him justice even if it tries really hard to please everyone.
Following Hawking from his time as an astrophysics student at Cambridge University to the modern day, Theory focuses on the struggles the young scientist faces after he discovers that he’s been afflicted by motor neuron disease, a typically fatal ailment that traps the mind inside an unfunctioning body. Eddie Redmayne inhabits the physical façade of Hawking with strength and character infusing it with humanity as much as is expected.
As a young man, Redmayne gives us a Hawking who’s confident, but awkward; exuberant and frenetic, yet reserved and studious. He’s the exemplification of all things we associate with vibrant, passionate students. It’s during this time that he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a literature student who finds fascination in the simple scientific facts he presents as a way to impress an intelligent woman.
As his years in Cambridge continue and his doctoral research progresses, Redmayne gives the audience precisely what it expects, a slow descent into physical torture and calculated deformity. Hawking degrades before our eyes in a slow, unrelenting push towards infirmity. This is where Marsh follows the template too closely. It’s difficult to come up with a way to depict such a decline without adhering to strict historical structures.
Cinema has seldom given the audience a story like this without looking almost precisely the same. Jane’s acceptance of his disability while simultaneously feeling trapped by it, Stephen’s denial that things will change and his attempts to stave off the worst symptoms in an attempt to show bravery in the face of adversity, and other expected ups and downs.
Given only the baseline expectations of such a story, it’s little surprise that Redmayne and Jones seem to excel beyond the material. They have created buoyant personalities whose tribulations strengthen their character even when they engage in morally and ethically dubious behaviors. Even though both seek out romantic entanglements while married, the audience never judges them harshly for them, feeling that in their situations even they would have difficulty remaining faithful.
This is where screenwriter Anthony McCarten needed to embellish. Choosing to carefully, but mechanically convey these personalities to the audience only serves to create superficial attachment to them and those situations, later wondering why the film stood out so firmly in their minds. James Marsh is equally responsible for playing safely with the material. The producers clearly wanted something that was broadly appealing that they could sell to a mass audience eager for films that are emotionally engaging without being pensively challenging.
What is the nature of life? Is there really a theory that explains everything? In the body of The Theory of Everything, the audience is stuck within a competent, but superficial narrative that provides exactly what they want and nothing more. If the universe were as simplistic and structured as this film, we wouldn’t need brilliant astrophysicists like Hawking to help navigate and explain it.
May 12, 2015