A theory of everything. Ambitious, right? And yet, for a genius like Stephen Hawking, no problem.
Unfortunately, making a movie about the physicist’s extraordinary life is a little more challenging. How do you convey a lifetime of achievement—brilliance, struggle, love and loss—in a single film? Moreover, how can you even mention theoretical physics to the masses when almost no one gives a shit? The answer is you can’t… but that doesn’t stop The Theory of Everything from trying!
Famed for his documentary Man on Wire, director James Marsh approaches Hawking’s life more like a historian than an artist. The result is a biopic that is pretty by the book—in this case, Jane Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen—though it does have its charms.
When things get too hard, couples look for something easy. And so, they both screw the help. It’s perversely inspiring that even a man who can’t walk or talk continues to be, well, a man.
The biography is anchored in a love story—some emotion to go with all that science—and it starts when Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) meets Jane Wild (Felicity Jones) at Cambridge University. Stephen pursues his doctorate while he awkwardly pursues this fetching brunette. Gentleman may prefer blondes, but in the tradition of Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind, science nerds are all about the dark locks.
At first, he exhibits all the trappings of a cinematic boy wonder. Like all geniuses in movies—but in my experience only idiots in real life—Stephen writes on chalkboards and stares meaningfully at formulas. Without really trying, because not going to class means you’re a derelict a true scholar, he wows his peers and professors.
And in the visually stunning scene where the genius converts his brilliance into mojo (did I mention young Hawking looks a lot like Austin Powers?), Stephen seduces Jane by explaining why the men’s shirts glow more brightly under the fluorescent lighting at the party. The gathering itself is an elegant dream: tents, tuxes, a merry-go-round. It’s not exactly the typical college party—where you’re lucky if there’s room temperature Keystone—but hey, we all know the Brits are much more civilized.
Then comes the tragedy: Stephen is diagnosed with a motor neuron disease that will debilitate his body without impairing his powerful mind. Life expectancy? Two years. The doctor reveals he will still be able to think, but no one will know what his thoughts are. Cruel irony.
The performances rise to the challenge the characters then face. Redmayne masters the physicality of the role while still managing to be charming and sympathetic—a man afflicted but still not defined by his illness. Jones is also very winning, finding strength she didn’t know she had. Side note: I wish she would just stoop to a romantic comedy so America can adore her with the enthusiasm she truly deserves.
Jane stands by Stephen and demonstrates a quiet fortitude, caring for him through his illness. She even goes so far as to marry the man, and along with mothering him—burping, carrying, and spoon-feeding him—she also mothers three of his children. (Stephen jokes to his friends, something about it being automatic, but really? Three kids? How…)
Finally, the relationship wears on both parties, and it crumbles. After all, Jane thought she was signing on for two years max, and then Stephen went ahead and kept on living. She goes above and beyond, but it’s all just too hard. And when things get too hard, even or maybe especially for a power duo like this one, couples look for something easy. And so, they both screw the help. It’s perversely inspiring that even a man who can’t walk or talk continues to be, well, a man.
But as beautiful as The Theory of Everything is—lush lighting, artfully arranged scenes—A Beautiful Mind it is not. It safely meanders in biography without really finding a compelling narrative arc. Understandably, Stephen’s journey doesn’t lend itself to a neat, schizophrenic twist like the reveal of John Nash’s imaginary friends, but still there is a lack of coherence as, true to its name, the film tries to touch upon everything: love and loss (standard), struggle and hardship (obviously), religion and science (messy), theory and food (I’m hungry).
It certainly captures Hawking’s life, really too much of it, and since life is often boring, so too is this movie. The ambition turns the film into a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, and so even though certain parts sparkle, jammed together they start to lose their luster.
We’ll see then what comes of the early Oscar buzz. Most of us like our entertainment entertaining—otherwise we’d all quit drinking and stop learning things the hard way. Somehow the ice bucket challenge was the answer to ALS awareness, so do we really want an education in everything? The film tries too much. It may win the cinephile’s mind, but I’m not so sure it can win the American heart.