Mark Reviews Movies

The Theory of Everything


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Maxine Peake

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive material)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 11/7/14 (limited); 11/14/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 13, 2014

Soon after learning that he has ALS (more popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) sits in the lounge of his dormitory at the University of Cambridge watching a soap opera on television. He jokes that "the probability of happiness" for the characters on screen is "some integer of zero." This scene in The Theory of Everything is presented as a potential way in which Hawking's life could have turned—that one of our greatest minds could have given into despair and depression. The obvious thought is that the potential of Hawking's intellect being wasted would be tragic. What do we say, then, of a movie about Hawking that sees his life in terms as simple and melodramatic as a soap opera?

According to the movie, the great triumph of Hawking's life, which—despite the prognosis of a two-year lifespan after his diagnosis—continues still, has nothing to do with his scientific work, which includes writing a best-selling book that popularized the ideas of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics. It has little to do with the ways in which he has overcome the limitations of his disease to live an incredibly productive life, which includes writing a series of books and academic works while suffering from ALS.

No, in the view of this movie, Hawking's greatest achievement is that he was able to attain relative happiness in a life fraught with difficulties in matters of the heart. He defeated the odds of that "probability of happiness."

Surely the lessons of Hawking's life are more significant than the details of a single relationship. Surely a biographical account of the man can do greater service to his scientific work than the lip service paid to it by this movie (We see him scratching out equations on a chalkboard and hear him speak of a "grand, unifying 'theory of everything'"). Surely his disease is a greater struggle for him and those close to him than the depiction of a string of major setbacks that the movie reduces it to be.

Surely there's more to Hawking's life than this. That's the main takeaway from the movie, which uses the backdrop of Hawking's life as the setting for a soap opera. It may be a respectful and sympathetic one under the direction of James Marsh, but it's still a soap opera.

The story begins with a vibrant but socially shy Stephen at Cambridge in 1963. He meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party and talks with her through the night. The two begin a relationship while Stephen works on his doctorate thesis. While walking across campus, he trips and falls on his face, and after some tests, a doctor informs Stephen that he, at the age of 21, has ALS.

The depression stage lasts briefly, as Jane stands beside him despite his insistence that she move on with her life. The two get married, and Stephen completes his thesis on a new way at looking at the Big Bang.

At this point, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten (based on Jane Hawking's book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen) focuses almost exclusively on Stephen and Jane's domestic affairs and romantic affairs outside of their domestic life together. When it's observing the trials of living with and living with someone with a debilitating disease, the movie is at its most informative and compassionate. Much of this has to do with the performances of Redmayne, who elicits a frightening sense of impending doom as Stephen's condition worsens (He is also very convincing once the disease results in almost total paralysis for Stephen, communicating a range of dread and regret through his eyes), and Jones, who begins as a unconditionally supportive presence only to gradually and understandably become more and more overwhelmed by the experience.

It's an insular view of a complex relationship that examines the difficulties of even seemingly routine things, but it veers sharply with the introduction of Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who joins the family as Stephen's caretaker. Jane and Jonathan share an unrequited attraction (Jane jokes that her mother suggesting she join the church choir is "the most English thing anyone has ever said," but some of the tempered dialogue between her and Jonathan surpasses it), but Jane holds to her sense of duty to her ailing husband. That leads to a lot of half-glances, a scene in which family members doubt the paternity of Jane and Stephen's children, and a stop to camp during a road trip that results in a late-night visit to a tent.

The progression of Stephen's disease and the occasional scenes of his work ultimately feel like unimportant interludes in the far less involving story of a marriage crumbling due to, from the movie's perspective, external influences. Stephen, who seems to offer permission to Jane for her extramarital romance, takes a liking to one of his nurses (Maxine Peake), and the cycle repeats itself.

The most fascinating elements of Hawking's life and work are merely hinted at or relegated to the background. This is a man who helped the world see and ponder the great, limitless mysteries of the universe while confronting his own limitation, yet The Theory of Everything is disappointingly restricted in scope, concentrating on the elements of a story that make the man's life feel ordinary and earthbound.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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