It’s not a compliment that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything works best with built-in knowledge of its amazing subject. Before watching The Theory of Everything, catch Stephen Hawking on YouTube. Unlike his many contemporaries, Hawking has the extraordinary talent of making you feel smarter the longer you hear him speak. He speaks with you rather than above you, and his personality is one of endearing humility. Many say he’s the smartest person in the world, a man who developed groundbreaking theories on gravity, black holes, quantum mechanics, and, of course, relativity. Hawking was a man whose theories were able to turn everyone’s heads but his own. He was devastatingly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) at age 21, and we’ve come to hear his ideas through a digitized voice that speaks through his commands. Like many of you I suspect (though most won’t admit it), my first exposure to the genius came from The Simpsons, where he’s a recurring character. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that he voiced the character himself. Hawking has a wry sense of humor, often about himself most of all.
What might surprise is that The Theory of Everything is a love story. The central drama is of a romance between Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), and acts as a biopic only in service to the grand romance. It’s an ambitious decision that’s sometimes a strength but mostly a weakness.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, which acts as a brief history of tepid screenwriting, doesn’t embody Hawking’s traits as much as suggest them. Sometimes we’re told he’s funny, but less often does he make anyone, including the viewer, laugh. The old film adage of, “Show, don’t tell” is an overstated but useful guideline, one that should have been followed here. It’s up to actor Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) to personify and characterize him for the screenplay rather than with it, a frustrating reversal for a prolific figure famous for knowing his audience. Films with big, showy central roles (and this year has many of them) live or die by their casting, and Redmayne amazes. The more you’ve seen of Hawking, on the internet or in person if you’re lucky, the more you’ll see an overwhelming similarity in cadence and feeling. Hawking talks through facial tics as much as through his robotic voice, expressing unheard words through his eyes, eyebrows, and lips. For portraying Hawking, Redmayne has mastered it all. He might win an Oscar for the role, and he impressively evokes the same devotion for accuracy as Daniel Day Lewis did when he won the Oscar for My Left Foot in 1990.
Hawking’s story is an inherently interesting one, but McCarten’s diluted it down to episodic tangents. It’s as though The Theory of Everything was made for the occasional commercial break. It has the look and feel of high-end Hallmark channel, with color filters so strong they reduce entire frames to obnoxious shades of red, blue, or yellow. They serve no purpose other than to hide Benoît Delhomme’s shoddy cinematography, a trick is used on many a TV show, notably with the failed series FlashForward. It’s fast food melodrama that has mistaken itself as gourmet, but it might not even suffice as a value meal. We’re supposed to be seeing it all from a deeply personal vantage point, but the characters and their motivations remain ever on the periphery. When the opportunity comes for Jane to have an affair, the script suddenly lets us out of her head and transitions us to the point of view of her friends, where did she or didn’t she becomes a cheap attempt to build dramatic tension. There are many other contrivances in story logic, and with each one we understand less and less Hawking and Jane as people. With each attempt to manufacture soap TV excitement, the film loses more of its integrity.
In the same way Llewelyn Moss is the main character of No Country for Old Men but it’s really about Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff, The Theory of Everything is about Jane more than it is about the famed physicist. The central conceit questions the distance we go for love and the value of the dedication we have for our life partners. It should also be said shifting focus to a strong female character, especially one most films would have left in the shadows of the story, makes a powerful statement. Jane is the film's emotional heavyweight, but she can’t land a hit.
The telling of their story twists euphoric love into love as servitude—Jane, of course, will have to nurture and watch after over Stephen by sacrificing her independence and even her identity. We see her sacrifice and hardship, making us wonder if we’d have the courage to make the same choices. Jane’s choice is an assuredly brave one, but the film dramatizes it with little depth of meaning. Felicity Jones does her best to deepen and expand a thinly written character, but her motivations have all the complexity of a Valentine’s Day card. She does what she does because of love, and more love, and love some more. I would say Jane’s character felt like a cartoon, but many cartoons feel more human. That we understand her at all is a tribute to Jones’ fine work. That is to say, these are all the chronic symptoms of deeply flawed film. It’s an inherently interesting story told with too soft a touch, but the performances (and a resplendent score by Alexandre Desplat) just almost save it.
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