The Theory of Everything (2014)
Dir: James Marsh
Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is given the full-on biopic treatment in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, delving into a life rich with conflict and thematical resonance: theology vs. physics, whether to follow the heart or the head, and exuberant love mixed with deeply felt loss. Adapted from Jane Wilde Hawking’s novel Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the fairly standard tale is elevated by truly invigorating turns from Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as Jane and Stephen Hawking.
The movie opens with soft focus scenes set at Cambridge University in 1963. Young Stephen Hawking, askew glasses covering brilliant eyes, approaches the glowing Jane Wilde at a mixer. His patter charms her and despite their differences (he an atheist physics student, she a Christian arts major), there is an immediate spark and Jane doubles back to leave her number. It’s a typical meet-cute, made whole by performances that are immediately engaging. Redmayne with his rogue’s grin and Jones with her megawatt smile have chemistry that emanates from the screen.
These early scenes are shot with a sun-dappled glow that retreats to an otherworldly blue hue at night. The camera swoops and swirls kinetically, capturing the rapture of young love. A night time ball scene is backlit by exploding fireworks, which sounds obvious but comes off as woozily romantic. In short, the romance is sold convincingly. Hawking’s burgeoning career is also given equal credence, establishing his brilliance as a PHd candidate and setting the groundwork for what will become his world-changing theories (he chooses “time” as his focus of choice). The joy of these early scenes is especially bittersweet as we in the audience know that great physical hardship awaits.
The first signs of Hawking’s motor neuron disease come in the form of reduced coordination – dropped mugs and difficulty writing. Soon he takes a bad fall while running and is admitted to the hospital where the doctor tells him he has two years to live, tops. Jane’s strength truly begins to shine as rather than leave Stephen, she stays by his side knowing full well the difficult path ahead. Once Jane and Stephen’s strong bond is clearly cemented, a wedding montage follows and The Theory of Everything abandons its earlier, idiosyncratic structure to fall into a more rote re-telling of the rest of their history together.
The physicality of Redmayne as Hawking is astounding. Despite the film’s time jumps, it’s never jarring and always seems to logically flow. He goes from an awkward young man to an older gentleman, one whose body has rebelled against him but whose mind remains sharp as ever. He twists and contorts himself as Hawking’s condition worsens over the years and it is truly transformative. Many of the emotional beats have to be conveyed with merely his eyes later in the film. He’s funny and full of life, and skirts parody by imbuing the performance with humanity. It could’ve been a disaster of Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder proportions, but Redmayne is a revelation and consummate pro, and should be lauded for the work done here.
Felicity Jones is equally great as Jane, a role that mostly transcends that of simply a wife/foil. She’s a co-lead and is given an arc of her own, which makes sense given the source material and how influential she was in Hawking’s life. Vulnerable yet possessing a deep well of empathy and strength, this story is just as much hers as Stephen’s. As their family grows and Hawking’s condition worsens, Jane is more put-upon and forced to give up some of her own dreams to help facilitate Stephen’s. There’s an interesting tension in the dynamic that helps propel the latter half of the narrative. Her independence and agency is refreshing, and when she exerts her will it’s a breath of fresh air. Whether she’s at her wit’s end or strongly standing by Stephen’s side, Jones is never less than believable and always immensely watchable.
While The Theory of Everything sometimes does fall prey to biopic clichés (an over-reliance on montages, a need to compress so many years of life into such a small period), it also contains some visually inventive sequences (such as when an immobile Stephen stares through holes in his sweater at a roaring fire and has an epiphany about the nature of the universe). Director Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) brings a visual panache that suits the period aspect, although the early lush scenery later devolves into digital muddiness (perhaps by design?). In its latter half the movie itself settles into more serious themes of aging love and loss, which are likely more suited to the sombre palette employed.
The enormous charm and talent of the two leads is likely the best reason to recommend The Theory of Everything. There’s also some interesting musings about science versus God, how two equally bright people can (or can’t) balance their ambitions, and the mutability of love. It doesn’t always transcend its genre trappings but overall The Theory of Everything has enough wit and heart to satisfy. It’s not simply the science of paint-by-numbers, it’s art.