Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Theory of Everything Movie Review

There are two central characters in The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic directed by James Marsh and adapted by Anthony McCarten from the memoir by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane. Stephen and Jane are equal partners in screen time and emotional heft in the story. This is less a biopic that gets into the inner workings of a genius mind and his struggle to continue working during a debilitating illness than it is a love story about two people overcoming the terrible weight of that illness on their lives.

The problem I find with the very existence of this story as a dramatic film is that I don’t think Stephen Hawking is a compelling enough main character. He’s a brilliant scientist. He’s a genius with profound and groundbreaking theories about the universe. He has ALS, which has left him without the use of his body. He gets around in a wheelchair and communicates only through a computer and synthesized voice. But he doesn’t bear any deep character flaws. Hawking, as presented by Jane via McCarten, is a good man. He has wit and some charm. He has ambition and genius, but he’s not proud. He’s sort of uninteresting on a character level.

Jane, on the other hand, has all the makings for a flawed protagonist, but either that angle is never explored or the evidence doesn’t support it. Jane is a young woman, a student, when she falls in love with Stephen. When his illness is discovered she wants to stay with him and marry him in spite of the two years he’s been given to live. Maybe she never really considered deeply what sort of commitment she was making by agreeing to be his wife and caretaker, not to mention mother of his children, while his body wasted away. Maybe she thought she could bear it for the two years he was given, but never counted on his living decades beyond the initial prognosis. Even the most selfless and giving of human beings has a limit.

Eventually Jane finds emotional comfort in a family friend who also directs the church choir where she sings. In him she finds a spiritual fulfillment she never had with the atheist Hawking. The screenplay presents her falling in love with Jonathan (Charlie Cox) as something that might have occurred even without Stephen’s illness, but how can we discount it as a major factor?

Mostly this is standard biopic boilerplate, a whole lot of big generalities and very little intriguing specificity. There is something commendable in director James Marsh’s apparent refusal to focus on Hawking’s struggle to overcome or work through his illness. You can imagine a lesser film with scenes depicting his frustration as he attempt to write in the early stages or even to turn the pages of a book. Marsh presents his challenges as simply a fact of his life. He experiences ups and downs. There’s his initial refusal to see anyone after his diagnosis and then his stubbornness after losing his voice to participate in the only communication method available to him, which happens to be laborious and time consuming.

There is likely to be a lot of comparison of Eddie Redmayne’s very fine performance to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. While it would be short-sighted to deny the incredible effort to reproduce the physical performance that Redmayne exhibits, I think there’s an emotional connection that he lacks that Day-Lewis achieved as Christy Brown. His eyes are expressive as they must be, but something isn’t quite there. Deserving as he is of the accolades and awards that may be coming Redmayne’s way, I’m not convinced that twisting and contorting one’s body and face makes a great performance in and of itself. Felicity Jones, however, is really marvelous as Jane. I hope she doesn’t go unnoticed, overshadowed as she is by the actorly tactics employed by Redmayne. She balances Jane on this precarious precipice overlooking the selfish, angry, frustrated wife of a man who needs constant care, keeping her character just on the edge so she remains sweet, loving, caring, and giving. We just about understand her and push for her to find solace in another man.

There’s a lot of substance at work here in the depiction of relationships and support and the way our affections veer in the direction of those who are giving us the care we need and deserve. Emotional transference is very real. But at the end of the day The Theory of Everything doesn’t amount to very much. It remains fairly standard, predictable, and safe, almost as if it’s calculated to garner attention during awards season.

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