Silver Screen: The Theory of Everything ***1/2
For his entire life as a public figure, rock-star cosmologist Stephen Hawking has been confined to a wheelchair due to the deteriorating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Director James Marsh’s biopic about the legendary thinker shifts our perception of him from the opening frames, where we glimpse a college-age Hawking racing through picturesque English streetscapes in a friendly bicycle race. Owing to his essentially unknowable intellect, computerized voice, and withered, frozen frame, it’s deceptively easy to think of Hawking almost as a brain in a jar, a superpowered mind barely tethered to the corporeal world. (My pal, the very funny standup comedian Emily Galati, put it best: “I didn’t even know he was British. His computer doesn’t have an accent.”)
If Marsh’s uneven but intriguing film does nothing else, it helps demystify Hawking and present him as a flawed, fascinating person rather than a kind of sentient collection of brilliant ideas. This shyly grinning schoolboy Hawking we first meet (played by Eddie Redmayne in a fantastic performance) is socially awkward and gifted but directionless. He’s full of thoughts but unsure how to channel them, much to the consternation of his professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis), who introduces him to new theories that point Hawking toward an exploration of time.
Just as he is chipping away at what will become one of the great projects of his life— Hawking explains his quest as a search for a single equation that will explain the origins of all life in the cosmos— he meets the beautiful Jane (Felicity Jones), a sweet, more conventional student studying medieval poetry. Suddenly the bumbling boy genius has a sweetheart, much to the delight of his intellectually demanding parents (Simon McBurney and Lucy Chappell).
And then comes the looming calamity. Stephen suffers a fall while walking to class and is diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The prognosis is grim; he’s given two years to live and little hope of achieving his academic goals. Steadfast Jane refuses to defer to the doctors’ pessimism and commits to staying with Stephen through what they both must presume to be an imminent bitter end. Yet the years pass by, and developing technology helps Stephen stave off, or at least adapt to, his increasing physical disabilities. He and Jane marry, have children, and start a life. But Jane never realized she was signing on for an entire lifetime of caregiving as her own ambitions are cast aside in the service of her brilliant husband.
The Theory of Everything is structured around Stephen and Jane’s relationship (and is based on her book, Traveling to Infinity), which is an interesting angle of approach to the story, but one to which Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten can’t quite stick. Nominally that remains the strategy throughout, beginning with their first encounter and following through the turbulent later years of their marriage, when she’s tempted by a family friend (Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox) and he’s drawn to his speech therapist (Maxine Peake). But the focus slips in the movie’s second hour, when the story makes jarring leaps forward in time and becomes a more generic highlight-reel biopic: Stephen loses his speech, Stephen receives the revolutionary computer that will grant him his new digitized voice, Stephen writes A Brief History of Time. Jane is shuffled to the back of the stage, and the breakdown of their union— what should be the climactic event given the movie’s posture as a romance— becomes a secondary plotline poorly articulated by a handful of fragmentary scenes. The filmmakers would have been wise to confine the action to a narrower timeline and resist the understandable impulse to dramatize Hawking’s later, most notable achievements.
There’s the trouble, though. It’s understandable that Marsh and McCarten want to explore Hawking’s remarkable reclamation of his voice, both literal and figurative. Because the truth is, Stephen Hawking is a revolutionary thinker with an indomitable spirit and almost incalculable intelligence quotient. The most interesting element of his life is not that he was married to a nice, supportive lady. That’s not to minimize Jane’s incredible devotion and her contributions to his legacy. The urge not to relegate the female lead to a mere supporting role as the woman-behind-the-man is admirable, but it doesn’t make much sense in this case. This is Stephen friggin’ Hawking, one of the smartest people in the world, and yes, his work exploring the history of the universe is more important than her dissertation on obscure poetry.
If Marsh’s goal was to humanize Hawking by focusing on his relationship with Jane, then he should have narrowed the focus and trusted the audience to know the details of Hawking’s later accomplishments— or at least trusted us to be able to look it up on Wikipedia. Or he could make a more conventional biopic with Jane’s story as a subplot. Here he’s done a little of both but not enough of either.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.