The Theory of Everything (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Theory of Everything (2014)

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Dr. Stephen Hawking, brilliant cosmologist and theoretical physicist, was once just another strapping and awkward lad in college.  Jane Wilde, devout Christian and kind soul, was just another student.  The Theory of Everything is about how the two met, lived, and loved as Dr. Hawking lost control of his body but kept sharpening his mind.  James Marsh directs from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Our happy coupleOne scene at the end of The Theory of Everything sums up the total experience with depressing accuracy.  Dr. Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), now bound to his signature wheelchair and robotic voice, looks on his children with their mother, Hawking's ex-wife Jane (Felicity Jones).  "Look what we made," he says while the children play in a frame of pristine garden imagery.  To this point, their children have been little more than background accessories throughout director James Marsh's film.  Given how little we know about the elder Hawking's relationship to their children he could have said, "What disappointments we've raised," and have it be about as appropriate.

There's little connection to this moment because Marsh hardly builds up to it as the children are conspicuously absent during much of the film.  This struck me a bit odd since children are one of the ways that people leave their legacy.  Is Marsh, perhaps, making a point that the children will matter little in comparison to the work of Dr. Hawking?  Unlikely, especially since Dr. Hawking's work takes so little priority in the film.  How about Dr. Hawking's connections to his coworkers?  Well, they operate on the "out of sight, out of mind" principle of storytelling and ultimately have little effect on Dr. Hawking's life.

A brief moment of drama, soon to return to the deadening beauty.

A brief moment of drama, soon to return to the deadening beauty.

With possibilities gradually eliminated in each scene leading up to Dr. Hawking's declaration about his children, I have to conclude that The Theory of Everything is little more than interchangeably pretty backdrops for Dr. Hawking to travel.  This could have been clever, presenting Dr. Hawking's life in a timeline that curves and twists along his famous theories.  Instead it's a broad biopic of one relationship that had a few troubles, but nothing that a quick cut to the future couldn't fix.

No risks are taken with The Theory of Everything.  Aside from the beginning and end, Dr. Hawking's life is a straightforward highlight reel that doesn't linger on anything negative for very long.  Even with the one gloomy bathtub scene and a surprising moment of physical capability at the end, nothing communicates the absolute horror of having an intellect of his capacity trapped in that body.  This is fine, The Theory of Everything certainly doesn't need to be a gloomy slog.  But it devalues the immense struggle Dr. Hawking went through physically if there is little attempt to portray it, and brings up more questions about why producer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten wanted to bring this story to theaters.

The central romance between Dr. Hawking and Jane is a plodding snooze with no tension about their eventual fate.  Again, the presentation softens what dramatic ripples could have gone out from the story.  Their beginning is gorgeously filmed when Dr. Hawking describes the dancers under a black light as though they are copulating stars to a clearly smitten Jane, and climaxes with a shot lifting to the heavens as the young lovers kiss.  But as they go on in life the bright lights and pristine framing are The Theory of Everything's sole means of presentation.  There's some grainy stock here, a different filter there, but ultimately it's all the same deadening brightness from start to finish.  When they break up there are a few shadows around, but not enough of a change from the usual shiny images to register for long.

Redmayne and

Redmayne and Jones are, if nothing else, a photogenic couple.

For all the buzz that Redmayne and Jones' performances have been getting I admit to being particularly critical of what they were doing.  That said, neither one lives up to the immense buildup around their pairing.  There's something a bit distasteful to me when someone gets heavy praise for playing a physically or mentally disabled character and Redmayne's performance is little more than the disability.  It's accurate, to a point, but not affecting.  Redmayne at least has the professors, lecture halls, family, friends, and hospitals to bounce off of, Jones is saddled with an unfortunate role as McCarten's screenplay gives her little to do other than fret and smile at Redmayne.  She's a cypher, save for a belief in God, who in story terms is there to love and leave Dr. Hawking.

I believe the buzz has been so strong for The Theory of Everything because of one technique Marsh does execute well.  By making Dr. Hawking so appealing and the surroundings so gorgeous at the beginning of the film, we can't help but feel a longing for a return to his clumsy body and voice.  But the world around Dr. Hawking stays gorgeous and never switches to a different visual register.  As a narrative technique it's numbing, and as a representation of Dr. Hawking's life it's shallow.

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Tail - The Theory of EverythingThe Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed by James Marsh.
Screenplay written by Anthony McCarten.
Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Posted by Andrew

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