Review by Nate
The story of Stephen Hawking’s life is so fascinating that I am quite surprised it has not been cinematically told before. Even despite earlier protestations from the iconic physicist himself, his story is one of triumph over disability and should absolutely be told.
In this particular case — Hawking’s ascendance in the Ph.D. circuit at Cambridge and relationship with Jane, all while simultaneously being diagnosed with his disability — is delivered via excellent performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and effortless directing by James Marsh.
Since I have been a modest fan of Hawking since A Brief History of Time, I was interested to see how Theory of Everything would balance the cosmology with the relationship, particularly Jane’s (Jones) belief in God and Stephen’s (Redmayne) atheism. Probably the best dialogue in this regard is during a discussion while Jane has dinner with Stephen and his family:
Stephen: “A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator.”
Jane: “Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists.”
While their clash of worldviews provides plenty of fodder to investigate the dichotomy between metaphysics and science (or, should I say, their complementary relationship), the film almost entirely ignores what probably were some intense discussions on the subject by the real couple. Because of its spotty handling of this issue, the next time Jane pushes back on the subject, we are not entirely sure whether she is irritated at Stephen’s atheism or his inability to come to terms with his disability. I was a little frustrated that the film overlooks this intellectually fertile territory, if not as a potential feature of their real interactions then simply as a commentary on the perennial academic/cultural debate. While this particular critique might seem like straining at gnats, as it were, the missed opportunity for what could have been a rich dialogue is what disappoints me.
Theory of Everything is not a comic book movie with shaky cams and harsh cuts. Marsh’s camera is subtle; it wants to remain fixed on its characters, moving only for the occasional tracking shot. At one level the film is a brilliantly detailed period piece, much of the beginning set in the 1960s with those earth-toned clothes and that bad hair. The precision to detail is so particular, as a matter of fact, that it is an achievement in and of itself, as some of the scenes are very close to real photos of the Hawkings.
Redmayne gives an outstanding performance, particularly expressing the slow death, as it were, of Stephen’s muscles from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. His performance is so brilliant, so meticulously accurate, even the muscles around his eye appear to involuntarily twitch from straining at his computer from his wheelchair. I cannot stress enough how befitting it was for Redmayne to win the Oscar for this role (oddly enough, Redmayne beat Benedict Cumberbatch who also played Stephen Hawking in the 2004 BBC version). There is a particularly heart-wrenching scene where Stephen tries to pull his weak body up the stairs to the second-floor of his home and he notices his son, Robbie, is watching. “It’s okay, Robbie,” he tells his son as he begins to cry.
I should say, on a personal note, Theory of Everything hits pretty close to home. My father is also disabled (he is a quadriplegic) so I understand the everyday struggles just to eat or swallow or get into bed or even go to the bathroom. I also understand the triumphs of the human spirit in the face of debilitating circumstances. And I am not just referring to Stephen Hawking. In this regard, the film’s portrayal of Jane’s caretaking responsibilities seemed pretty accurate. The lack of energy, the level of preparation and work, the frustration of the caretaker is very real. I appreciate the film for focusing on that aspect of both their lives. Some of the greatest unsung heroes of our society are those who care for those that cannot care for themselves.
Unfortunately, the movie’s treatment of love is a bit muddled, which is not as much a critique against the film as it is against a culture that is so confused when it comes to love and marriage. For example, Jane and Stephen are the main focus of the film: how they meet, fall in love, get married, and overcome the various difficulties of his ALS. This means we are invested in their love relationship as a unit that stands against various odds. As a matter of fact, the moment we believe in their love is the moment Jane refuses to leave Stephen even after he begs her to (when he discovers he only has two years to live). She tells him she will not leave because she loves him. This wonderfully reflects the biblical view of love as agape or self-sacrificial love: “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2). This is why the traditional marriage vows promise that both persons will remain bonded or committed to each other through times of trouble and sorrow. Biblical love is a decision of the will. It is an action of sacrifice.
This is why, later, when Jane falls in love with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), it feels so out of place, as if we have lost the drive of the film. And again, when Stephen leaves Jane for his nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake), the emotional fabric upon which the story has been grounded is ripped. No doubt these elements had to be told as part of Hawking’s real history but the film is utterly silent (save one pained facial expression by Stephen as he leaves his wife) about the loss and/or consequences of dissolving Jane and Stephen’s marriage. Also, the way the movie treats the events surrounding Stephen and Jane’s break-up is a bit too blasé, too unceremonious, as if the conclusion is love comes and goes and, thus, people should just pursue it wherever they find it, regardless of their marriages. As if all it takes is for another woman to look at a dirty magazine with Stephen or shave his face in order to get him to want to leave his wife.
These criticisms of the missed opportunity with the clash of worldviews and the treatment of Stephen and Jane’s divorce do not take away from the beauty of this film and the tremendous acting performances by both Redmayne and Jones. Theory of Everything is a film to be watched and shared, not just as a biography of an important scientific figure, but as a triumph of the human spirit in the face of a life-threatening disability.
Rating 4 out of 5
Theory of Everything is rated PG-13 for mild violence and partial nudity.