“The Theory of Everything”: Not Quite What It Promises

I first learned about Stephen Hawking when I was a kid, watching the episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Hawking cameos as a hologram of himself, playing cards with Newton, Einstein and Mr. Data. My parents explained who Hawking was and what amazing odds he’d conquered to still communicate with the world. The man made an incredible impression. I regret not watching his science shows as I got older, but recently I read his memoir, “My Brief History,” and got a better sense of his research interests.

“The Theory of Everything,” a new biopic based mostly on the memoir by Jane Hawking, Stephen’s ex-wife, excels visually and emotionally, conveying just how remarkable this man’s journey has been, but it fails to convey the science fully. That major caveat keeps a very good film – probably one of the best-acted films of the year – from being truly great. Still, I felt that I didn’t waste my money seeing it in theaters, and I suspect most filmgoers will feel the same way, choosing to invest in the emotions over the science.

“Everything” starts at a Cambridge party, where young Ph.D. students Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) meet cute. They rapidly fall in love, while Stephen finds guidance in Roger Penrose’s new ideas about black holes, as well as the kind tutelage of Prof. Brian Sciama (David Thewlis, basically reprising the affable academic role he performed so well in Harry Potter). Hawking becomes convinced that a black hole exploding could explain the beginning of the universe. Right as he makes this theory, however, Hawking is diagnosed with ALS, then called motor neuron disease, and he begins his inexorable deterioration.

Jane’s determination to keep Stephen alive for as long as possible becomes the driving force for the film. We see their marriage remain happy at first, as their first two children are born and Stephen aces his Ph.D. thesis, but slowly the demands of constant care and the inability to finish her own doctorate make Jane miserable. She briefly finds platonic solace with Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who becomes a tacitly acknowledged third member of their family. The scenes where Hawking masters his electric wheelchair, and where we see Stephen, Jane, and Jonathan making the best of an unusual three-tiered marriage, make a tremendous emotional wallop. We also are engrossed as we see Hawking lose his voice, regain it through the triumphant use of a synthesizer, and finally leave Jane for his edgy, controlling nurse, Elaine (Maxine Peake). The dissolution of Stephen and Jane’s marriage will make even the stoniest of filmgoers reach for their Kleenex.


Source: http://bit.ly/1C5bbgr.
Source: http://bit.ly/1C5bbgr.

I suppose I sound as though I’m raving about “The Theory of Everything.” Largely, I was satisfied with the experience of watching the film. Eddie Redmayne gives Hawking a wry sense of humor and distinctive body language in the early scenes – we genuinely like this man before his illness kicks into full gear. Here, Redmayne truly excels, moving far beyond his comfort zone (e.g., the youthful revolutionary tenor in “Les Miserables”) as he contorts his body into atrophied shapes, slurs his speech, and ultimately communicates with mere facial twitches. Were it not for Michael Keaton’s extraordinary, instantly iconic performance in “Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” I’d say Redmayne was a lock for the major acting awards. He may be, yet.

I also want to applaud Felicity Jones for the psychological complexity she brings to Jane Hawking. We see Jane go from a sweet young girl in love to an emotionally raw longtime companion, torn between her attraction to Jonathan and her unyielding devotion to Stephen. This devotion makes the end of the Hawkings’ marriage all the more heartbreaking – Jane has sent Jonathan away for Stephen’s sake, only to see the great professor entranced by Elaine’s forceful personality. Through Jones’ remarkably expressive face, we come to understand the complexities of love and the toll of living with a genius who emotionally betrays her. At one scene set at the family’s country house, where Hawking denies his need for live-in medical help, Jones glares at her film husband with such exasperation and ferocity that she instantly became, in my mind, the odds-on favorite for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Jones is that good.

The film is also visually brilliant, edited with great acuity and using colorful cinematography to great effect. I’ve rarely seen a film that so elegantly composes shots and uses the arrangement of visual space to comment on the characters’ emotional condition. We are up close with Stephen and his doctor in the hospital, so close to their heads that we feel disoriented – much like the disorientation Stephen must have felt when learning that he was terminally ill. We see blurred images of bodies gliding across a dance floor, lit up in UV light, reflecting Stephen’s description of stars bursting into existence. Foreground and background placements of the members of the four-way love web – Jane, Stephen, Jonathan, Elaine – comment wordlessly on the toll of many taxing years. Director James Marsh and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme have created an intimate ballet on screen.

A masterful use of color and space adds great potency to the film. Source: http://bit.ly/1wsw3rV.
A masterful use of color and space adds great potency to the film. Source: http://bit.ly/1wsw3rV.

The visuals and script do well with the science in the first portion of the film, up through Stephen’s declaration of his theory of Hawking radiation emitted from black holes. Powerful visual metaphors underscore the stages of his thought. The dancers reflect his description of novas. A narrow room leading to a lecturing Roger Penrose (Christian McKay) conveys the enveloping nature of the black hole, leading to a singularity – in this case, the singular genius of Penrose. The blurring currents of milk in a coffee cup elegantly show how a black hole swallows light. Glimpses of fire, seen through a half-removed sweater, symbolize Hawking’s vision of black holes emitting radiation and ultimately burning out of existence. Certainly, some of the scientific dialogue to this point is a little pat and superficial, but the visuals and cumulative effect of the dialogue keep us engrossed.

What comes next, however? Brief mentions that quantum mechanics and relativity don’t mix; something about time having no boundaries – in short, a lack of verbal and visual specificity replaces the earlier acuity in capturing Hawking’s thought. As the film becomes an admittedly exceptional domestic drama, the science utterly evaporates from the program. I wanted more stunning metaphors to convey Stephen’s physics discoveries and show to us just why Stephen Hawking is such a remarkable thinker. What a missed opportunity this film represents. The filmmakers could have used the vast canvas of cinema to take viewers on a wide-ranging intellectual voyage, as well as an emotional voyage. Still, maybe this lack of specificity about physics conveys what it is like for ordinary folks to be around a genius like Hawking.

I wanted so much to give “The Theory of Everything” an unrestrained rave. The cinematography alone is worth the price of admission, and Johann Johannsson’s musical score, filled with intricate piano melodies, adds a sense of profound, aching beauty to key scenes, such as when the Hawking family visits the beach. Redmayne gives as good a portrayal of debilitating illness as I’ve ever seen in a film; he easily matches Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Stephen in the 2004 BBC film, “Hawking.” Jones makes Jane Hawking a secular saint of sorts – this is one of the most three-dimensional women in a film in years.

Unfortunately, writer Anthony McCarten’s handling of the science in the last two-thirds of the film detracts from the film’s overall quality. I can’t recommend as superb a film that doesn’t adequately explain why Stephen Hawking’s life work matters. The earlier BBC film, while focusing only on Hawking’s Ph.D. years and not the later evolution of his thought, did a much more thorough job of portraying the personalities in physics, the theoretical debates, and why Hawking’s first theories made such waves. As I said earlier, though, many people may not care about the superficial treatment of the science. Seeing Hawking deteriorate, master his synthesizer, and ultimately leave his agonized wife will probably be enough for most people seeking a good time at the movies.

In the end, I think more time would have made all the difference. Instead of a quick hour and fifty minutes of screen time, a three-hour film, or better yet a multi-part miniseries, would have allowed the filmmakers to dig into the science more. We might also have seen more of Hawking’s rise to world fame, as well as the scientific challenges to his work that arose in later years and the disintegration of his second marriage to Elaine.

The filmmakers clearly want to tell the story of Jane and Stephen, an admirable goal, hence their desire to cap the story at the end of the Hawkings’ marriage. What frustrates me, though, is that the story of Stephen and Jane continued beyond their divorce. Hawking ultimately divorced Elaine in the 2000s and rekindled a friendship with his ex-wife. Those developments are major parts of Stephen and Jane’s life story. By stopping before that point, the filmmakers imply that they prefer a shallower feel-good story to a truly challenging drama that would take Hawking through the difficulties of his second marriage to a much more powerful dénouement. I suppose that’s the difference between history and Hollywood – history will go to those darker places commercial filmmakers are reticent to visit. Besides, it takes time to explore the nuances of history.

But I give Marsh and his team credit for one last powerful metaphor at the end of the film. Hawking’s later research took away boundaries for time, arguing that time did not exist before the Big Bang. In the final scene, time reverses itself onscreen, so we see Hawking grow young and healthy again, finally ending with him at that Cambridge party. If we reversed time so that time vanished and we were left with just a singularity of mass, what would be there? In this case, we’re left with a good man, who stayed basically good despite his later character flaws. The science represented here only became clearer when I read about Hawking after the film, but the final montage is undeniably moving.

Go see “The Theory of Everything” and marvel at the human journey, then check Hawking’s books and documentaries out from the library to understand the science. Nonetheless, that human journey, coupled with astounding visuals and genuine respect for Stephen Hawking’s work, makes this flawed motion picture one of the better films of the year.

Felicity Jones, Dr. Stephen Hawking, and Eddie Redmayne. Source: http://bit.ly/1xsIAJP.
Felicity Jones, Dr. Stephen Hawking, and Eddie Redmayne. Source: http://bit.ly/1xsIAJP.

Cover photo: The real Hawkings versus their film counterparts. Source: http://bit.ly/1v3cZA0.


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