The Theory of Everything (2014)
My respect for Stephen Hawking is not small. That respect, for both his intellectual achievements and his struggles to ensure those achievements were recorded and transmuted into vast and vivid insight into realities beyond almost human measure, all but demands The Theory of Everything, a new biopic recounting Hawking’s life, receive a deferential viewing. But any hopes that The Theory of Everything might try to match the lucid virtuosity of Hawking’s thought quickly fails in an avalanche of Oscar-hungry slush. Not that there’s anything surprising in this. Hawking’s fame has long been sustained not so much by his scientific research, important as it is but also relatively esoteric, but by his exemplification of the contemporary obsession with inspiration over adversity, and his willingness to ply a populist side to his insights. Already we’ve ticked every necessary box for the quotidian ideal of the Oscar bait film: all that’s required is the necessary actor to transform himself for the role, and we get him in the form of Eddie Redmayne, who’s been circling the edges of stardom lately. So young savant Hawking, played at the outset as a gawky, geeky, but slyly witty and potentially boisterous chap, is just embarking on his PhD when he meets lady fair Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and sweeps her off her feet with scientific analogies. Soon enough they become a couple but as Stephen’s body begins to show signs of breakdown, he’s diagnosed with motor neurone disease, with an average life expectancy of two years. Jane nonetheless stands by her man. They get married and try to sustain something like a normal marriage as long as they can.
Director James Marsh quickly reveals his mastery of donnish biopic cliché when he introduces Hawking racing a pal on a bicycle through the streets of Cambridge: riding the bicycle has long been an efficient way of showing off big brain heroes in movies as physically active (a true genius might eventually become crippled, but no true genius is a couch potato) via a mode of transport that’s both quaint and dashing (no true genius will drive a Ford Anglia). Marsh also expertly negotiates the problem of making Stephen look like the biggest nerd in the Cambridge of 1963: how do you make someone look geeky when everyone looked geeky? Give him bigger glasses than everyone else, of course. The first half-hour of The Theory of Everything is easily the least of it, recycling aspects of A Beautiful Mind (2002) as awkward boffin hero and his lady dance through the night at campus bashes and gaze star-wards with the certainty that the mysteries of the universe and the glory of young, white, collegiate love are conjoined in their wonderment. We get quick sketches of Hawking’s genius – he casually solves nine of ten hard questions set by his teacher Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) on the back of a bus timetable, provoking gasps of astonishment from his pals. Sciama gives Hawking a tour of the small back room where great scientists have achieved mighty feats and leaving him there to bask in its musty, dorky awe, all the better to then completely leave behind any sign of mere academic labour.
There is certainly a great, humanistic, stirring, but painful and eccentric tale contained in Hawking’s life story. Some of the eccentricity even comes across in this film, particularly in the middle third, as it is obliged to tell a stranger story than we expect from this sort of fare. The Theory of Everything necessarily depicts a marriage that necessarily becomes a thorny but, for a time, strangely stable array of loyalties. Increasingly disaffected and wearied by a relationship that has turned her into nursemaid rather than wife, Jane takes her mother’s advice and returns to her childhood love of singing as an outlet, only to find herself affected by the gravitational pull of a hunk: Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) is the sexy choirmaster (yeah, baby) who volunteers to help Jane out in caring for Stephen, only for the two to form a strong and eventually sexual bond. Stephen essentially acquiesces to this with understanding, but when he is drawn to his Irish nurse Elaine Mason (the ever-bracing Maxine Peake), he finally feels obligated to pull the plug on his marriage. There’s a hint in all this of a much-mocked literary genre, the “Infidelity in Hampstead” school of British novel and some of its cinematic equivalents like Accident (1967), in depicting the free-flowing lives and lusts of English bourgeois academia.
If Marsh had any guts whatsoever, he might have confronted the peculiarities of eroticism involved in Jane and Stephen’s attempts to maintain relations as he deteriorates, but fades out quickly after a kiss from Jane on Stephen’s withered brow portends such an interlude. Apart from a scene of Hawking struggling to haul himself up a flight of stairs and realising with agony that he can’t even manage that piece of independent mobility any more, the film however scarcely deals with his decline in more than cursory terms,carelessly jumping time periods. Thewlis’s Sciama is mostly on hand for expository dialogue exchanges that allow the filmmakers to bypass actually being interested in Hawking’s real work. Nor does Marsh really go to any effort to depict the fundamental, beautiful irony of Hawking’s life, slow physical deterioration unfettering and tempering an intellect, and the script only makes facile connections between this twinning of the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. With repeated allusions to Stephen’s desire to find a simple, beautiful equation that will solve the riddle of the universe, the eponymous theory of everything, I found myself girding my stomach with caution, in nauseous anticipation of someone eventually proposing that the greatest equation is love. But of course, Interstellar already got there this year. The film’s repeated attempts to deal with a faith/science divide via Jane and Stephen’s divergent values – she’s Church of England, he’s a Cosmologist, which he defines as a “a religion for intelligent atheists,” play less as a serious engagement of the divide but as a way of pleasing conservative viewers who might otherwise find Hawking’s enquiries irksome.
The Theory of Everything looks glossy in a digital-cinema way, with lots of nice light effects and softly diffused colour patinas, but depressingly, even the accomplished cinematographer Benoît Delhomme can’t keep the film’s texture free of traces of motion blur and scanning problems, so the whole thing ends up looking cheap. Anyway, mere prettiness can’t make up for weak cinematic language: the film builds up to an important pivot when Hawking finally loses his voice from a tracheotomy and so has to communicate through blinks alone: rather than privilege us with actually being able to see this process, and feel the thrill and desperation of such communication from the edge of total loss, Marsh’s camera hangs back indistinctly. The resulting film would fit easily into the run of moderately engaging TV-made biopics made in Britain in recent years, about people like Ian Fleming or Daphne DuMaurier. But Marsh’s emphases betray its pretensions beyond such fare, pretensions that are not so much actually cinematic, but seeking the kind of emotional power and gravitas that we associate with major cinema works, as it pauses repeatedly for would-be emotional climaxes. Trouble is, so many of these fail to connect, like Jane watching the angry, just-diagnosed Stephen kicking croquet balls about, or the finale when the newly-minted celebrity Hawking speaks to an audience about “A Brief History of Time”.
Jones’ performance becomes a major irritant, as she crumples her face, shakes her lower lip and goes bug-eyed to evoke righteous feeling, and makes a show of holding back the waterworks repeatedly, as if determined to be sure she’s noticed next to Redmayne, but instead achieves something unique: quiet hambone. The film wants to make an interesting point, about how Jane and Stephen’s relationship perhaps merely exacerbates the tendency for the female partner’s life to be consumed and subordinated, as Stephen becomes a celebrity whilst she has to tend his every need. But the film can’t really articulate it, and instead sublimates this point into mere romantic longing, which is as awkwardly sexist as anything the film’s trying to comment on. Where Redmayne and Jones make a cute couple, the romance between her and Cox never even momentarily ignites. Cox, amusingly, is asked to play a similar role to his part on the TV show Boardwalk Empire as the thinking woman’s bit of adulterous crumpet, but robbed of the sly charm and edge of dangerousness he could wield in that part.
Although some might feel a distinct sense of déjà vu in contemplating his performance as another post-My Left Foot (1990) play of physical disability, Redmayne does a technically excellent job of depicting Hawking’s steady transformation into the gnomic, wheel-chair bound man who’s visage is so well-known, and he actually keeps his performance restrained throughout. The film’s actual climax, or at least its properly effective one, comes when Stephen breaks the news to Jane that he’s planning to travel to the US with Elaine, with heartbreak in forcing himself to give up something that’s sustained him finally showing on his wizened features like an act of surrender, aware that he’s being both merciful and selfish in one stroke. The film’s better moments tend to be more casual epiphanies, including Stephen’s college chums carrying him up steps and, with collegiate whimsy, depositing him in the arms of a statue of Queen Victoria, offering the oddly affecting sight of the hero of the moment cradled like a baby and presented to posterity in the arms of a metal mother. Right at the end there’s a montage of the film’s signature moments staged in reverse, a filmic device that interestingly correlates the sundered but still amicable couple’s pride in creating their children with Hawking’s scientific method and vision, tracking back to the moment of inception for such creation in their first meeting. With more touches like these, The Theory of Everything might have been grand. But the film is finally too relentlessly palatable and smoothed-over to be memorable beyond Oscar season.