Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde Hawking
Charlie Cox as Jonathan Hellyer Jones
Emily Watson as Isobel Hawking
Simon McBurney as Frank Hawking
Charlotte Hope as Phillipa Hawking
Tom Prior as Robert Hawking
Harry Lloyd as Bryan
David Thewlis as Dennis Sciama
Maxine Peake as Elaine Mason
Enzo Cilenti as Kip Thorne
Stephen Hawking as Electronic Hawking Voice
Directed by James Marsh
In the turbulent life of physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) — laid low by terminal disease just as he was on the verge of his greatest intellectual and personal accomplishments — director James Marsh has in his hands the opportunity to look at both the inner workings of the universe and of human beings (and the complicated relationships of both) and see if there is some way to unite them both. The answer is probably not, but Marsh gives it a solid try surrounded by a cadre of willing actors doing some of their best work and all of them hampered by a script which refuses to rise above the tried and true.
Not everyone is going to want a film about the math which underpins both the largest and smallest functions of the universe, no more so than they want an ideological diatribe about the culture clash between science and theology, so it’s understandable that “The Theory of Everything” would avoid such large discussions despite its lofty title. It’s less understandable, and less deserving of understanding, to pretend to such reach and then deliver a more traditionally melodramatic relationship drama.
More than one writer and more than one filmmaker has picked up a similar task, and like the work Hawking sets out to complete revolving around black holes and the opposing views of quantum mechanics and general relativity — work he sets out to finish through the unending support of his wife Jane who sets aside her own life to become his proxy physical self — the end result is a bit of a disappointment.
Threading the needle between emotional resonance and intellectual philosophizing is difficult and fraught with peril for even the most experienced storytellers. Some follow the Kubricks and Maliks of the world, giving up on traditional structure or characterization in favor of thought experimentation and deep contemplation, and frequently dash their audiences upon the rocky shoals of vague esotericism. Others prefer to use the science as a backdrop for the lives of the people caught up in it, attempting to make the profound relatable but often merely following the ruts carved by other relationship dramas. We’ll diagnose it as Beautiful Mind Syndrome.
Marsh, working from Anthony McCarten’s adaptation of Jane Wilde Hawking’s (Jones) memoir, attempts to make the meld not in the lab or observatory but at the hearth, focusing on how her husband’s disease and growing accomplishments eclipse her sense of self and cuts off communication between them.
One of “Theory’s” real accomplishments is its ability to avoid dreariness amid the decade-long travail of Stephen and Jane’s hasty marriage, a testament to both nimble characterization and strong performances from its leads. In a telling use of “show not describe,” the effects of their decision to wed on the assumption of Stephen’s impending doom play out of the decades mostly on Jones’ face as her stiff upper lip slowly but steadily becomes a trembling one. Though the film revels a bit too much in the effects of Stephen’s disease as it removes his ability to first walk and then talk (counterpointed against the needs of their relatively less demanding infant children) it also creates just the context to understand the draw of live-in helper Jonathan Jones (Cox) when Jane turns from her husband’s rationalism back to the church, finding the comfort she seeks not so much in the words of the Almighty as in the arms of the Almighty’s choir director.
Like a good physicist’s biopic there’s no dice playing here and that juxtaposition is no accident, as “Theory” picks up big ideas about science and religion, about how far human bonds can be stretched ? and drops them uncommented on, victims of Marsh’s contortions as he tries to get a grip both on his extremely large canvas and how to dramatize a man who is silent and immobile for long stretches and producing a film often overly broad.
That it works at all is a testament to strength of Redmayne’s performance which perfectly imitates Hawking without impersonating him. His stammer and hesitant mannerisms not only preview the loss of his motor function but also his innate introversion and how it wars with his human need for contact, a war he uses his disease as an excuse to give up on. Redmayne’s Hawking reacts with a telling collapse of relief when Jane takes her lover, despite the beginning of the end it signifies, granting not just a release for Jane’s physical isolation, but also to Stephen’s guilt in causing it and his desire to retreat back into introspection – one of the few times the film does not treat him and his actions with kid gloves. It is also one of the few times after Hawking’s voice all but vanishes that such storytelling is possible as Marsh and McCarten are unsure what to do with a main character who cannot move or speak (no matter how believably performed), leaving Hawking to become a spectator for much of his story, and distancing the audience from it.
Moreso, without Hawking to balance it, the tripod of major characters can no longer stand upright and nor can the film itself which leans heavily on its leads to counteract the more than occasional dips into mawkishness, particularly at the end. To combat that “Theory” skips over great swaths of time, leaving quite a few characters by the wayside in the process, including most of Hawking’s friends and family, his children and the nurse he eventually turns to for his own comfort.
Rather than encompassing Everything, “Theory” has a very limited scope within which it is effective. Even efforts at inspiration based on Hawking’s refusal to die come up short as the cerebral nature of his work makes it difficult to visualize beyond a few trite attempts to show something in the everyday world inspiring an idea. Attempts which gradually cease along with much mention of his career outside his family at least until advances in technology give Hawking his voice back (an emotionless monotone Redmayne must create all feeling for just from his face) and the ability to dictate a popular science book which is apparently his greatest scientific accomplishment.
At the end, we are left to ruminate on both his work and his life and find out if even his massive intellect can make sense of it all, revealing the mawkishness and sentiment which Marsh danced around for so long only to find no empty seats when the music stopped. It’s the sort of feeling-over-thought vibe Hawking spent much of the film (and his life) rebelling against and makes one wonder whether the filmmakers really knew the subject at all.