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The Theory of Everything (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 6, 2014 | Add Comments

The Theory of EverythingStephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS disease in 1963 but conquered his two-year life expectancy and became an influential theoretical physicist, is not your average scientist. Luckily, The Theory of Everything, which chronicles Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde and significant scientific achievements, is a more sophisticated, contemplative biopic than one might expect.

As the film begins, Hawking is a socially awkward, slightly clumsy, and rather directionless Cambridge undergraduate. He meets Jane Wilde at a party, and they’re instantly charmed by one another. Then, after an ugly fall, Stephen is diagnosed with “motor-neuron disease” and told his ability to talk and walk will quickly decline. He’s confused, he’s angry, and he wants to shut out Jane from his life. She won’t let that happen, however, and promises to help him through the challenges that lay ahead.

That all sounds predictably inspiring, and it is, but the film reveals new layers as their marriage continues. As the years wear on, Jane endures alongside Stephen and suffers with him.  Eventually, she, and the audience, ask: how much of herself is she sacrificing? The youthful, unwavering love the couple initially shared becomes more fraught with tension, yet becomes something deeper, with the passing of time.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir, gives equal attention to both Jane and Stephen, providing a fleshed-out, two-sided relationship without male or female cliches.

It’s the performances that really make or break this type of film, and The Theory of Everything has two great ones. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne gets ample opportunity to display his acting talent, but it’s his subtlety that makes the role heartbreaking. As his eager, intelligent vigor fades into weary sickness, Redmayne undergoes a remarkable physical transformation. His head slumps down, his hands scrunch up, and his speech slurs. Remarkably, his intellect remains untouched. Jane’s confidence, however, does not. Actress Felicity Jones shows us all her roles: loving wife, persevering companion, and apprehensive, frustrated woman. Her role may be less physically demanding than Redmayne’s, but it’s just as emotionally testing.

Science geeks interested in gleaning some new information from a Stephen Hawking biopic will be thoroughly disappointed, but it’s hard to imagine others sharing such a sentiment (for those interested, there’s Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time”.) Director James Marsh is far more interested in complex relationships and the limits of love than he is in mathematical equations that provide a theory for everything. He’s clearly adept at working with actors, and creating a believable human love story. But, thanks to cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, the film also has a muted, lush beauty. Marsh and Delhomme are keen visual thinkers, and they imbue the soft, enchanting frames with a hazy warmth, universal grandness, and ravishing romance (as Jane and Stephen tenderly kiss, the camera lifts upwards and floats away).

That’s not to say The Theory of Everything is without it’s flaws. Some plot strands, while effective, are repetitive, and the film feels a bit slow. And the inspiring, against-all-odds story of triumph and romance, while historical and illuminating, has been seen before.

The Theory of EverythingStill, it’s easy to fall for the film which, while often hard to watch, leaves you with a sense of hope for mankind. Die-hard physicists may complain, but it’s hard to imagine a more compelling version of Hawking’s story, made within the Hollywood boundaries. Then again, you may leave the theater unsure about the “biopic” genre. How many more films about historical icons can we watch? Why do some celebrities of the past get the movie treatment and not others? The Theory of Everything is a fine film, and it gives us new insight into a famous figure. But sitting at the dinner table, you may tell your friends “I really didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking, and the film was quite informative. Oh, and the acing was phenomenal.” But didn’t you say the same thing about Lincoln? Saving Mr. BanksThe King’s Speech? Surely filmmakers have original, fictions stories to tell too? Coming soon: The Imitation Game, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken… Hmm.

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