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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking is, without question, one of the most important scientific figures in the last 75 years. Many of his ideas, theories, and books have transcended scientific academia and have penetrated popular culture. Despite this, the main thing that comes to mind for many is his disease, or the robotic talking machine he uses to communicate. The Theory of Everything is ostensibly about his struggles, but also about the romance with his wife Jane, and their complex and changing relationship. It is directed by a unique voice, James Marsh, whose documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim are arguably some of the best of the genre of the last several years.

The Theory of Everything begins with Hawking's school days, where we see him being a typical college student, flirting, sleeping in, goofing around–but also being incredibly brilliant. He takes a liking to Jane (Felicity Jones), a fellow student who's religious beliefs are the opposite of Stephen's, but they quickly fall in love. Soon afterwards, Stephen has a nasty fall and discovers that he has ALS, with a life expectancy of two years. This shatters his world, but Jane's support brings him back up and allows him to continue his scientific career to great success. However, things become increasingly difficult for Jane, as she struggles with their relationship and their lives together.

The movie works pretty well as a whole, but it seems like there are two stories that are trying to be told: the first is of Stephen's conquering of adversity and becoming the popular scientist that he is today; the other is of Jane, and how even the greatest of loves can be tested and broken.

I didn't know going into the film that it is based on Jane's book, so in the first half, I was a little worried. I was expecting a romance movie with a heavy dramatic twist that hopefully was not too light on the actual science so intrinsically involved in Hawking's life story–and it mostly hit those spots–but I found myself more interested in Jane as time passed; what were her goals? Of course, her selflessness and sacrifice is worth noting, but I was disappointed that her place was seemingly there just to hold Stephen up. However, the movie gradually turns and is eventually more about Jane than Stephen, which makes for a much more fascinating story.

While we do get to be present for many of the key moments in Hawking's career, the true focus of the film is on love, and how it can be twisted into any shape or form. Although Jane and Stephen's love is true and stronger than most relationships at first, it is tested by the fact that Jane has to take care of several children as well as Stephen, and eventually they both turn to other places for the kind of love that they need. This kind of personal drama wouldn't be nearly as compelling without great performances, which this film luckily has in spades. Eddie Redmayne plays Hawking with impressive control, able to convey the same personality and humor when he is young and mobile and when he is confined to the wheelchair without a voice. Felicity Jones, however, is the real star of the film; despite the fact that she sometimes still looks like the school aged girl Stephen fell in love with while Redmayne's makeup ages him more realistically, Jones plays the role with excellent subtlety. Her inner conflicts are realized and portrayed through unrelated conversation and body movement, and really create wonderful tension and feeling.


The Theory of Everything is a very interesting movie, but its problem may be in that it either can't decide what kind of movie it wants to be, or it wants to be two different movies. I'm not sure that the audience for a biopic on a well-known scientist that is fairly realistic in its portrayal of the theories is the same for a semi-inspirational marital drama. If those two parts of the film could have worked together in some way rather than being more or less starkly divided into the first and second halves, Marsh might have had something truly unique and memorable.

As it stands, The Theory of Everything is a good movie. The performances are definitely worth seeing, as the span of time covered here is extremely impressive, giving Redmayne and Jones what must have been quite difficult and changing roles. It becomes a fascinating piece on love and relationships, which it sometimes looks at through a brutal lens while other times successfully emanating hope, but the lead up to this part of the movie doesn't quite fit. The look at Hawking's early career is compelling in its own right, especially getting to see firsthand the charming personality of a man that has since lost all his ability to move, but it seems like a very different movie from the one we end up with. It isn't a misstep for Marsh, but doesn't quite live up to the breathless exhilaration and phenomenal storytelling of Man on Wire.


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